Local News

Saturday, Apr 24 2010 02:00 PM

Public schools leaders, students walk a fine line on religion

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Students at Bakersfield High end an after-school worship and Bible club meeting in prayer.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A BHS student looks up a verse in her Bible during an after-school worship and Bible club meeting.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Students Eric Borja, right, and Miranda Barker lead worship at a Bakersfield High student-led, after-school Bible club meeting.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Bakersfield High student Troy Kelly leads an after-school Bible club meeting through a time of praying for each other and for people they know who are going through difficult times. Guest speaker for the Bible club meeting is Jim Barker, who works with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group at BHS. Jacob Stuebbe , a teacher at BHS, has the Bible club meetings in his room.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    During a Bible club meeting after school at Bakersfield High, student Aubrey Green passes out flyers for "Pancakes and Prayer," a before-school gathering at her house for students.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Jim Barker is the guest speaker at an after school Bakersfield High Bible club meeting.

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BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

During six recent school days, students at Liberty, Shafter and Bakersfield high schools gave out hundreds of Bibles to their peers on campus.

How did they manage that in a public high school? Very carefully.

Related Info

PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS' RELIGIOUS RIGHTS

They can:

* Engage in prayer and religious discussion

* Be excused from school for religious reasons

* Share religious literature

* Study about religion, including the Bible, for purposes of instruction or for an assignment

* Participate in See You at the Pole prayer event, and other events before and after school

Source: The American Center for Law and Justice

KERN HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT CLUB CODE

AR 6145.5(a)

* "No high school is permitted to endorse, or allow to exist, clubs of a limited membership character."

BP 6145(a)

* "... no district student's participation in extracurricular and co-curricular activities shall be required or refused based on the student's ... religion."

BP 5145.13

* "Religious activities, which promote the 'appearance' of school sponsorship, cannot be scheduled or conducted."

Source: Kern High School District

The giveaways took place during rallies that had to be student-led and held when classes were not in session. They were in a spot on campus designated by the principal. To give out Bibles, students in Christian clubs could not approach their peers.

Public school students, administrators and teachers must follow specific rules designed to separate church and state, and at the same time acknowledge student rights. It can get tricky, however.

"We respect separation of church and state," said Jacob Stuebbe, a BHS economics teacher and Fist Pump 4 Jesus student club adviser. "At school, there's a fine line."

LAW AND RULES

Rules regarding religion in public schools have been well established for decades, said John Orr, a retired professor at the University of Southern California and an expert in religion and public education.

In essence, he said, students are free to express religious beliefs as long as they don't disrupt class and school-sponsored activities.

Schools and their employees cannot endorse student religious practices, nor inhibit them. Students can focus on religion for school assignments. And although the Bible is not on the state's recommended reading list for curriculum, students can study it in class for educational purposes.

"It can be a source of useful reading," said Tina Woo Jung, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education. "Just as long as you get kids reading, we're really happy."

Students can assemble religion-related clubs. Many area high schools host student-run Christian clubs, including Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Bible Club.

Local school officials said rules are rarely broken, and they rarely hear complaints from club participants, other students or employees.

But things don't always go so smoothly.

In June 2008, a newly graduated Stockdale High School student, valedictorian and president of a Christian club was stopped by a Kern High School District administrator from handing out Bibles to other grads as they picked up their diplomas on campus after graduating. In the end, the district reimbursed him for undistributed books and officials apologized.

And in Orange County the same year, a lawsuit forced a school district to change its policy to allow any student-led Bible club to form, regardless of whether the club was educating students according to school curriculum.

Dave Washburn, director of Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Kern County, said battles take place when there are misunderstandings about the law from all sides.

"I think there's a lot of misconception," Washburn said. "Students have a lot of freedom."

FOLLOWING GUIDELINES

During the recent Christian club rallies, students spoke of their experiences with God, youth pastors and guest speakers shared stories and Bibles were available for students who were interested.

At BHS, Principal David Reese designated the gym on campus as the place for students to express themselves. As long as activities are student-led and students are not speaking in an "in-your-face" manner, Reese said, he is fine with club events.

"The guidelines are very thorough," Reese said. "You can't infringe on people's beliefs."

At Liberty, students held five rallies, and Shafter held one. According to the California School Project Blog, which tracked the student rallies, more than 30 people "accepted Christ for the first time" during them.

At BHS, 20 students were "saved or rededicated their lives to Christ," said senior AJ Mendonca, a Fist Pump club vice president.

"They just really felt it there," Mendonca told club members during a recent meeting. "Amen for that."

And the Bibles? "We got cleaned out," he said, estimating they gave away more than 200.

Troy Kelly, a senior at BHS and president of the Fist Pump club, said making sure the club did not violate rules was "very intimidating." He said he constantly had to check rules with Reese and Stuebbe, club adviser.

"I was just there to make sure it was handled the right way," Stuebbe said. "It was done in the right manner and it was very positive."

All in all, the rallies went smoothly, Kelly said, and students had fun. The same goes for Liberty and Shafter. Kelly said he understands why guidelines are in place, and they should be followed.

"We were just trying to get the good news out, and tried to publicize to students what our club does," Kelly said. "I don't think rules should be more lenient. If they were, our school would go nuts."

Matt Love, a Fellowship adviser at Stockdale High, said students have rights and with those rights come responsibilities -- for the school districts, too.

"Our responsibility is to protect the student without limiting the students to what they're free to do," said Love, a resource math teacher.

For Steve Cabalka, who has been Bible Club adviser at Liberty High for 10 years, it's important to be sensitive to the feelings of all students. Club activities, he said, should be "low key."

"We're not out in the business to go out and get new converts," said Cabalka, a physical education teacher. "I want to be respectful to every kid on campus. My Bible tells me I need to be."

SCHOOL, MEETINGS AND PRAYER

Church youth leader Eric Borja strummed on the guitar Tuesday while BHS students sang hymns. Songs included "Here I am to Worship" and "Lord, You Have Come to the Seashore."

"Here I am to bow down," they sang. "Here I am to say that you're my God."

The doors of the classroom they sang in were opened. Other students passing by peeked in, but continued walking. It was a routine meeting for Fist Pump 4 Jesus and Fellowship of Christian Athletes held in Warren Hall at BHS.

After hearing updates on club activities, students ended the meeting by sharing favorite Bible passages, and in club tradition, ended with a prayer.

The setting sounds a lot like that of Bakersfield Christian High School or even Garces Memorial High School, where "expression of faith happens every day on campus," Garces President John Fanucchi said.

Those private schools have no restrictions when it comes to faith in school, said Daniel Cole, Bakersfield Christian president. There, every student has Bible, which is used as a textbook.

At Garces, students take theology classes, go on religious retreats and begin every morning with a prayer over the loud speaker.

"Our mission is to educate students spiritually, socially and intellectually," Fanucchi said. "All three are critical in their growth, and the most critical is spiritual growth."

"I understand why the state has its restrictions, limitations and rules (in public schools)," he continued. "But I cannot tell you how appreciative I am that we have the opportunity to express and show our faith with our students, faculty and administration. It's one of the true blessings."

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