Minister's Study

Ministering, writing, and wrestling in a land flowing with sweet tea and deep-fried food

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Here we go again

Well, I'm in my last two weeks with the newspaper. Especially in the aftermath of the passing of my father (which, though it does not cripple me with grief -- Christian, remember -- does affect me, more now than I think I realized at first), it would be easy to be coasting by now, taking soft stories, working steady hours to keep the paycheck coming in for the last couple of weeks before I go full-time with the church, but not doing anything heroic or controversial.

And then there was Monday. The hours were the least of it (I was working from 9 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., except for a bit less than an hour off for supper, and then back in the office at 9:15 a.m. to write one last story.) It's not the paper's fault that my dad died -- it's no one's fault, but it left the paper without a writer they expected to have last week. So the long hours were partly just due to me doing my best to get the job they pay me for done in the time I was there.

But see, something controversial came up. Now, considering I may already rank in the top 5 most hated people on this side of the county right now, at least by people involved in local politics (these things happen when you try to tell the truth without soft-pedaling around people because of their "importance" or affiliation), I really didn't need another controversial story. Shucks, Monday, a lady came in to meet me face to face (we had talked on the phone in an interview or two), and best I can tell, she mostly just wanted to know who to despise, what face to put with those articles she hated so much (for what it's worth, she thought I quoted her fairly). It's a pity -- I think she's a sweet lady, and I like her.

But hey, I wouldn't be me if I ran away from something controversial. Nice thing is, when I told this lady about this other story, I think she left so mad at someone else she might have forgotten to be mad at me (not that I did it for that reason -- I told her about it because it's an issue I knew she'd want to know about and be involved in).

Turns out the Pender County Ministerial Association has been basically teaching Bible classes in two local high schools. Now, the school board (led by their lawyer and superintendent, if what I'm hearing is right) has decided that they need to change how all this is done -- so they've cancelled the classes for next year.

The Bible classes have been entirely funded by donations from the community, textbooks and all. They are electives -- no one has to take them. In fact, the popularity has been such that they have had to add classes, and the ones they have are basically full. The curriculum was chosen because it is a "historical" text, not a "faith-based" text. It has apparently been tested in court for constitutionality and passed. The ministerial association chooses the teachers, and they are well-enough regarded that they have apparently been asked by the schools to help with coaching, counseling, etc.

The school board, saying they are worried about lawsuits, wants to bring the entire program under their control. It's fine with them if the churches and community want to keep giving money, but they have to give it to the school system with no strings attached other than that it go to Bible classes. They want to choose the curriculum (why they'd want to change at this point, I'm not sure, considering the one in use has withstood court challenge successfully), and they want to hire the teachers the same way they'd hire any other teacher, with no input from outside. And they have cancelled the classes for next year, apparently on the assumption that they can't get these things done in time.

Now, best as I can tell, there has not been one complaint within the county about these classes. (There was one complaint -- not a lawsuit, just a threat of one from the ACLU -- in an urban neighboring county, which apparently brought this about.) The schools tell me that these are rules they have to obey -- the teachers have to be certified, and so on. But no one has shown me where these rules come from. And if what they're doing now is against the rules, federal or state, why did they break the rules since 1983 (or whenever these rules went into effect)?

The school board and superintendent say they have nothing against Bible classes, and the ones that exist have been handled wonderfully with nothing but positive comment. They say they don't want to change a thing, but they have to. The Ministerial Association says the changes are arbitrary and unnecessary, probably just a power play to bring one more thing under school board and superintendent's office control. The Ministerial Association says it is willing to work on a compromise, but hasn't received any indication the superintendent is willing to even dialogue with them as equals, much less compromise.

There are some ironies here. I'm not a member of the ministerial association. Lots of great guys in there, but many of us are just so many leagues apart in what we believe that my presence would probably either be contentious or wasted, and I see no point in either outcome. I am EXTREMELY leary of the Bible being taught in public schools, particularly from a perspective I think is foreign to it and by teachers I expect don't even look at it close to the same way I do. There are other reasons, but even as a pastor, I'm not a huge fan of bringing religion into the school systems. There's another pastor who does part-time work for us, largely as a photographer (he's really, really good -- his sports photography belongs in the national magazines sometimes, not just a local paper), but also as a writer. And he and I are both pretty ambivilant about the Bible being taught in a public school classroom.

Funny thing is, our editor, using basically the same logic as a Time Magazine article earlier this month (which he hadn't even read) editorialized that these classes ought to remain -- the Bible is a huge part of our culture, and when taught as a historical and literary work, is something any educated United States citizen should be aware of, whether they disagree with it or not. This goes double when you've got people willing to do it at no cost to the school system, while the schools scream about lack of funds.

So he wrote the editorial (I did proof and contribute, even though I'm not sure I'm 100% behind it, so any problems with it are still partly mine), and I wrote the article. Schools versus the churches. And we thought Democrats versus Republicans could be contentious. Here we go again.


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