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AU challenges clergy counselling in Texas public school.

A Texas public school district's clergy counseling program violates the U.S. Constitution, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has charged.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed June 30 with the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United said the Beaumont, Texas, Independent School District's clergy-only counseling program violates the First Amendment.

The Beaumont program, called "Clergy in Schools," is apparently part of a broader school-church alliance intended to foster religion among the district's students, charged Americans United in its brief The program was challenged in federal court by local families who have asked to remain anonymous.

Beaumont's Superintendent, Dr. Carrol Thomas Jr., spoke at a March 21, 1996, luncheon given in his honor at a local church where he told local clergy that "we needed to get prayer back in the Beaumont public schools."

Under Thomas' leadership, school district administrators actively recruited local clergy to participate in the counseling program, including mailing solicitations sent at taxpayer expense.

Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "Parents, not public school officials, should decide whether children get counseling from preachers. The program in Beaumont is a clear violation of church-state separation.

"It's almost as if Beaumont school officials went out of their way to find out what the Constitution requires with regard to religion in public schools, and then did the exact opposite," continued Lynn. "It's unfortunate to see a school district engage in such blatantly unconstitutional activities."

Once the program was in place, Beaumont administrators provided training to participating clergy in how to counsel students, including the creation of talking points for the church officials on "Reasons for a School-church Alliance."

Clergy were told to counsel students about the benefits of regular church attendance and the educational advantages of religious faith. Members of the clergy, escorted into classrooms by school principals and officials, met with students at every elementary school in the district at least once and at every secondary school at least twice. School administrators also met regularly with clergy participants for prayer sessions prior to counseling students.

The school district "recommended" that the clergy not proselytize students during these classroom counseling sessions. However, the school district acknowledged that sectarian preaching did occur. Parental consent for the counseling was not sought.

From its inception, parents, civic organizations and other religious institutions have objected to the "Clergy in Schools" program. Those requests, however, were either ignored or rejected.

The Americans United brief, written by Americans United Legal Director Steven K. Green, insists Beaumont not only showed a lack of regard for minority faiths but intentionally excluded invitations to all other professions and refused to create counseling programs for any occupations other than clergy.

The AU brief was filed as part of an appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Joe Fisher's decision on April 2, 1997, to grant a motion for summary judgment, dismissing the case against the Beaumont School District. (Doe v. Beaumont independent School District)

In other news about religion in public schools:

* An assistant principal and science teacher at a florida high school are considering filing a law suit after they were threatened with disciplinary action for conducting religious activities with students during school hours.

Okaloosa County School Superintendent Walter Gordon recommended that Niceville High School Assistant Principal Charles Woolwine and science teacher Jack Wilson be suspended without pay for five and three days respectively. The two are accused of holding prayer meetings with students, urging them to become "saved" and baptizing them. The school undertook an investigation after some students complained about the activities.

TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice has offered to defend Woolwine and Wilson, asserting that their free speech rights have been violated.

* A proposed charter school in Los Angeles has come under fire for its ties to the Church of Scientology. Supporters of the Northwest Charter School admit that the school's teaching plan is based on methods developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard but say the school will not teach religion. Teacher Linda Smith, a Scientologist who authored the charter application, says she will use a teaching system called "Applied Scholastics."

The Los Angeles Times also reported that California's Education Department has given preliminary approval to five Hubbard books for use as supplementary texts in public schools. The move means that schools would have the option of using the books if they choose.

* Michigan's Board of Education has voted to remove references to God in a mission statement approved two years ago. The board voted 5-3 after more than 100 people jammed a raucous session that ended at 2 a.m. June 21.

The religious language was inserted into the document two years ago by former board president Clark Durant, a Religious Right ally. Durant's statement praised "Almighty God for the blessings of freedom" and contained other religious references. It also said the board was "dedicated to parental choice in schools."

The board is now split between four Democrats and four Republicans. Republican Dorothy Beardmore cast the deciding vote. "The religious overtones were troublesome to a lot of people," she said. "With the increasing diversity of our society, the last thing you need is to raise concerns about religion in schools."

* Religious right activist son the Texas Board of Education were unsuccessful in their attempt to block adoption of new academic standards in July. Six far-right operatives used procedural motions in an effort to stop the board from approving the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills plan but failed. The conservative coterie opposed the plan's emphasis on evolution in science classes and its failure to strongly emphasize phonics in language classes.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the meeting was the board's "most rancorous session to date" and said two members of the conservative bloc are considering filing a lawsuit to block implementation of the standards.

* The Fairfax County, Va., School Board has refused to disavow language in a high school biology textbook that equates creationism to astrology, fad diets and pseudoscience.

Voting 6-4 May 29, that board rejected an appeal from the American Family Association to put a disclaimer in the book, Biological Science: A Molecular Approach, because the language might offend students who believe in creationism. The board split on partisan lines, with six Democrats voting against the disclaimer and four Republicans voting for it.

* The Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Texas, School Board has tentatively voted to cancel a high school choir trip to Disney World over the company's policy of granting medical benefits to partners of gay employees. The move came just one week after the Southern Baptist Convention announced a boycott of Disney over the policy.

Board member Doug Hellman, a Christian Coalition activist, compared the Orlando-based Disney World to drug dealers. "Disney World isn't selling drugs, but the influence that Disney is promoting is just as destructive," he said. "It has to do with moral values."

* South Carolina Board of Education members have approved a policy stating that the board is committed to "maintaining an educational environment in which children of all religious faiths are welcome and are treated with dignity and respect." The June 11 resolution sprang from a May 13 meeting during which board member Henry Jordan made inflammatory comments about non-Christian faiths. Jordan had suggested asking public schools to post the Ten Commandments, and when another board member asked how Buddhist and Muslim students might react to that he snapped, "Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims!"
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Title Annotation:American United for Separation of Church and State
Publication:Church & State
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Previous Article:'Bible History' course should be dropped, AU tells Fla. school.
Next Article:Subpoena surprise: Fred Thompson comes knocking.

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