Of football and faith in Fairbanks: The News-Miner tells half the story

I spent nine months at the University of Alaska this past academic year teaching journalism and one of the courses I offered was on religion reporting.

It’s a needed quantity in the 49th state, as the only Alaskan on the rolls of the Religion Newswriters Association was one of my students and there’s no one really covering the beat anywhere in the state. Which is odd, and sad, since Alaska has a varied religious history ranging from Russian Orthodox missionaries to much more recent Muslim immigrants.

Every once in a blue moon, I’d spot a piece about religion in the Alaska Dispatch News, the state’s largest paper. In the fall of 2014, I asked its publisher, Alice Rogoff, about hiring a full-time specialist, and she sounded interested but a year later, I am still waiting for news. I should note the ADN has Chris Thompson, a religion columnist who fills in some of the gaps, but in terms of hard news, there’s not much out there. The ADN is based in Anchorage but I lived to the north in Fairbanks, where the biggest religion story last year was the installation of a new Catholic bishop.

Which is why I was a bit surprised to see a piece in the News-Miner, Fairbanks’ daily newspaper, about an unwanted Christian message at a local public school. It starts as follows:

FAIRBANKS -- A speaker who visited several Fairbanks public schools may have run afoul of federal law last week when he handed out religious ministry material to students during at least one all-school assembly.
The speaker, Randy Rich, visited most of the secondary schools in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. His talk was titled “Dare to Dream” and focused on conceiving and achieving life goals.
The speech itself avoided adhering to a specifically religious message, but some teachers expressed concern after Rich, following his speech, offered a ministry pamphlet to students that he reportedly billed as his football card from his time playing in the National Football League.
“The Bible says that ‘He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 1:6). If you want to know more about the message of God’s love and saving grace, please contact me,” the card states.
Concerns were initially raised by at least one teacher before Rich’s assembly had begun at Ryan Middle School.

It took me awhile to figure out who Rich was, as the article didn’t say he was a defensive back for three different teams. It didn’t say what Rich’s age was, which I am guessing is in his early 60s, judging by a college graduation date of 1976.  

The article goes on to quote the teacher at length, then to describe how the newspaper contacted the state American Civil Liberties Union chapter to get its opinion. As a result, ACLU Alaska has demanded the school district apologize for having this speaker in. I wasn’t familiar with this teacher but he’s leaked inside news to this News Miner reporter before.

I thought more about the piece. Here’s a state where the rates of child sexual assault are the nation’s highest (that is, six times the national average); where people joke about buying “happy lamps” to stave off winter depression; where the school district has been laying off teachers because of declining enrollment and plummeting budgets due to low state oil revenues. I can’t help but feel that a chance exposure to Christianity might be the least of all the problems that public school students (of which my daughter was one) might face there.

Anyway, here is a .pdf of the materials that Rich passed out. The article did quote from the principal who said she’d not gotten any parent complaints about the speech, which supports my gut instinct that most parents in that region have a lot more to worry about than their kids getting religious ideas from a pamphlet.

At the end of the piece, it said all attempts to reach Rich and his organization failed, in which case it seems only fair to go search out someone who approved of Rich or a kid who got something from the presentation. As it was, there was one complaining teacher who went on the record to complain about the school "violating the Constitution" by allowing Rich to speak. Pray tell, where in the Constitution was this teacher referring to?

The reporter also quoted the ACLU and a principal who was backed into a corner.  The article mentioned Rich as speaking at other middle schools in town, but the reporter apparently didn’t contact any of them to see if religious material was passed out there.

It’s really too bad that Rich and his organization didn’t get around to commenting on the matter and it doesn’t say much for them that they eluded the reporter’s calls. Still, when you’ve got mainly one local source complaining about the presentation, it's worth asking how many people are truly upset about this. Plus, the reporter needs to work a bit harder to get both sides represented. Otherwise it sounds like a witch hunt in the snow.

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