Buncombe County School Board Updates
By Patti Wigington, About.com Guide
In early 2012, About Pagan/Wiccan followed the case of the Buncombe County School Board, in Asheville, NC, where there’s been a controversy brewing regarding the distribution of Bibles in public schools.
On December 23, 2011, we ran a story about Ginger Strivelli, a Pagan mom who complained after her son was handed a Bible in public school. School officials didn’t seem to understand what the problem is. Strivelli said her fifth-grade son and his classmates were invited to leave their classroom to go down to the school office and get a free Bible. The Bibles were donated by the Gideons.
When Strivelli complained to the principal, Jackie Byerly, about the sheer inappropriateness of this, Byerly told her that the Bibles were not just handed out, but that students were given a choice as to whether they took them or not.
Strivelli said her son’s teacher announced that students could leave go get a Bible from the school’s main office. She says that once everyone else left, her son did too – and after all, it was a chance to get out of class for a while. Strivelli said her complaint is not an attack on Christianity. “I would be just as angry if it had been Jewish, Hindu, Pagan or Muslim,” she said.
At that time, the school district said that their policy was inclusive, and that literature from any religion was welcome – however, when Strivelli went to drop off some Pagan books, the school quickly told her that the material would not be distributed, because the district was reviewing their policy on religious materials in schools.
In January, the district announced they would be considering restrictions on a number of religious activities in the schools – from chaplains leading prayer with football teams to choral groups singing Christian hymns at Christmas concerts. District officials said they recognized that including religious materials in a public school setting could open them up for a potential lawsuit.
At the school board meeting in February, 2012, Strivelli attended, along with Pagan blogger Angela Pippinger, and local priestess Byron Ballard. That’s when things got really heated – Pippinger, who live-blogged the entire meeting, said there were times she was concerned for her physical safety.
On March 1, the school board met again, and this time the numbers were a bit more balanced. Many members of a variety of faiths showed up in support of the board’s new policy of neutrality, and voices were heard from both sides. However, the majority of the room was clearly of a fundamentalist bent. Angela Pippinger and I were able to live blog the whole thing on Twitter and Facebook. Since many readers do not use either, I’ve consolidated my updates here:
- (6:00 pm) So I’m here in Asheville NC, at the Buncombe County School Board offices, waiting for their meeting to begin. It’s starting to fill up. Should be some interesting stuff!
- Holy guacamole! I’m in the Buncombe County offices, and can’t access my own website, because it’s labeled as “occult.” Oddly, you can get to all the other Religion Channel pages at About.com. Go figure. They did allow us to submit a request asking that it be unblocked, but it takes 24 hours for review.
- Law enforcement is present tonight too. At least two police officers in the meeting room and may be more outside. Word is the Asheville PD is pretty good about keeping control. Nice to see you, guys! Been corrected, it’s not APD, but county sheriff. Big dudes.
- (6:30 pm) Room is pretty much at capacity. Should be getting started any time. Thanks to everyone for all the support! I’m so impressed by the folks I’ve met so far in Asheville. Lots of people from different religions showing up.
- Meeting begins with a moment of silence. Which isn’t really silent because there are lots of muttered prayers.
- (6:45 pm) Board has made revisions on policy and tabling vote until next month. Discussion only tonight. They’re talking about regular curriculum and ed stuff right now, so that will go on for a while. Public commentary should open up in a little bit, so we’ll add more updates as that part of the meeting starts. Apparently they’re going to revise it and vote on the policy as a whole, rather than just voting on the changes.
- (7:00 pm) Board is watching an absolutely fantastic video presentation on bullying – made by 3rd graders! Wondering if adults in the room are taking notes. “The power of courage grows when we work together and stand up for our friends.” ~random cute 3rd grader. How very appropriate.
- Comments getting ready to start! Amethyst Strivelli will be second speaker. Her mom, Ginger, is sitting by me, and brought this whole issue to our attention. Right now a rep for “more than 50 pastors and churches” in the area is addressing board. Amethyst Strivelli speaking to board – HS student. Says many kids in school, many religions. “Minority has freedom of speech too. Claire, HS Student, raised Catholic: Schools should remain neutral towards any religion.
- Sylvia, former teacher: encourage students/parents/staff to read Constitution, and not give up rights. Sylvia wants everyone to pray because the constitution says we’re allowed to. Bible enhances educational policy.
- Marvin thinks bullying would go away if 10 Commandments were still hanging on the walls. He wants to know if we have freedom of religion, or whether gov is restricting freedom to practice. Marvin says Ginger didn’t go to the principal of school, went to news instead. Except, uh, she DID go to principal. Jerry says there’s “community support” for what he believes in. Christ will live forever. Lots of AMENS.
- Patrick, a Heathen: speaking in favor of revised policy 652, not b/c it is pro- or anti-anything, but b/c it is pro-Constitution. Points out policy of “neutrality” is crucial. Patrick: responsibility of teaching religion belongs in homes and churches, not the public school system. “With liberty and justice for all,” right?
- Rabbi Rob in support of policy: 1st Am is critical foundation for a truly democratic society. Contradiction between liberty for all and imposition upon the rights of others. Rabbi Rob: Schools are only free of bullying if it is a place that is safe for ALL, where students can live up to full potential.
- Unknown gentleman speaker: Doesn’t like the idea of taking religion out of school. Mistakes made when prayer taken out of school. upset because students got assignment re Flying Spaghetti Monster. This is a religion and he doesn’t like it.
- Ashley Carter points out he is indeed named Ashley and is a dude. Church/state sep is a 2way bridge. Officials protecting religion.
- Karen says Christianity is our heritage. I’m not sure whose heritage, but she’d like Christians to have a chance to pass stuff out.
- Pastor Rusty: size of crowd indicates this is important. Lots of AMENs. Reminds us of vote coming up in November. Says if you try to stop a coach from praying with students, you are infringing his right to practice as he sees fit. Unknown female commenter: many Christian students have faced discrimination because of fear. She says Christians are usually the ones whose rights get ignored in today’s society. Unknown gentleman: Thanks board for meeting with pastors to address concerns. Wants to protect students rights to do stuff like See You At the Pole.
- Angela Pippinger addressing board: if another religion’s group had passed stuff out, people would have complained. She adds that school mission statement: helps to create a safe environment for ALL students. Think about all kids, not just one group.
- Carol, an attorney who works with interfaith groups: with diversification of county, we now exp what it is to learn about others. Carol says new policy balances competing interests as reflected in 1st Am. Wants grandkids in a school respectful of many faiths.
- Christina, HS student: believes in civil rights of all people, if policy supports neutrality, students appreciate that. Says kids get bullied for religion. Finds it ‘ludicrous’ that adults can be so disrespectful and petty and insulting others’ beliefs. Adds that it is not a teacher’s place to influence children with their own beliefs. “I go to school to better myself with education.”
- Byron Ballard: supports new religious diversity policy. Points out that some adherents to majority religions think minorities are a threat. Byron says in culture where school bullying is on the upswing, kids need to be safe @ school.
- Ginger Strivelli to board: parents of many faiths are supportive, but many afraid to stand up. Family is being tormented. Christians are not losing rights, they are losing special privileges. District money may end up paying for lawsuit.
- Weston: religion has been very important in history. Never saw religion in his science classes. Teach it along with evolution.
- Unidentified female speaker: it’s not a bad thing for kids to receive the word of God. But schools are not the place for it. Kids don’t know how to defend themselves if they’re not part of the majority. Will fight for your right to raise your kids any way you like, but don’t tell others how to raise their kids.
- Unknown male speaker: kids need to learn how to fight and how to “give it back.” What does this policy say about the Bible? Now he says democracy and the majority crucified his Savior. That’s what a democracy is, and wants to know if people are gonna put up with that. This gentleman says Christians have been silent too long. Not sure if we’ve been attending the same meeting.
- Board resumes meeting after ten minute recess. Most of the church crowd has left, room looks remarkably empty. Public commentary has ended for now.
The Buncombe County School Board will be meeting once again in April, and at that time the new policy will be voted on as a whole. Updates will be posted at that time.