Minister's Study

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

Friday, May 04, 2007

One follow-up

I didn't figure I'd write much more about Pender County issues and whatnot after I left the paper, but I've been meaning to mention this for a while and just haven't gotten around to posting it.

The issue about Bible classes in the schools has continued to heat up around here. The ministerial association has headed up a petition drive that has collected apparently thousands of signatures from people who want the Bible classes to remain (still taught as non-sectarian history courses, naturally).

The superintendent and school board insist that they don't have any choice but to change the classes, and if they can't get them changed in time, they have to cancel them, because they simply cannot legally keep doing them the way they are doing them.

The thing is, the school board is probably right. Currently, the classes are held in the public school buildings as electives, with the school giving credit for them.

But they are funded by the ministerial association, which selects the curriculum (fortunately, the curriculum they are using is probably one of only two major and generally accepted curriculums that pass constitutional muster) and hires the teachers (both of whom are uncertified local pastors, though they both have at least a four-year college degree). This approach to offering the classes could definitely be challenged in court, and would very likely lose a court case based on church-state separation. If the schools offer the classes, hold them in their buildings, and give credit for them, the schools have to approve the content of the course and provide certified teachers.

But it looks to me like the school board went about it all wrong. They have known for nearly two years, best I can tell, that they needed to change this. But they didn't want to deal with this last year, so they kept the advice of their attorney secret and said nothing to no one until this year was nearly over. Then they abruptly announced the cancellation of the classes.

When I talked to the ministerial association and the teachers of the courses, all seemed a little bewildered. The ministerial association says they would be perfectly willing to work with the board to find some kind of compromise, or a system that would work. One of the men teaching these courses says he would be glad to become certified and work through the school, and that he had even started the process of finding what he needed to get certified (the other teacher said he had no interest in certification). He said that given two years, he could have almost certainly gotten certified, and given one he likely could have -- but it's impossible between March and August.

Right now, the school board is scrambling to get a similar course offered through the local community college, or find someone already in its hire who is qualified and willing to teach. People in the ministerial association are scrambling to push off-site classes that they can still control. And the whole scrambled mess could likely have been avoided, if the school board had quietly sat down with the ministerial association, explained the legalities carefully, and worked out a solution when they first learned about the problem about two years ago. There wouldn't be any need for petition drives and constitution-thumping on both sides.

But the school board, in a move all too common in Pender County politics, decided that papa knows best, and it might cause trouble if they told anyone else what needed to be done or what they were considering doing. So now, they have a problem instead of a solution. Their secrecy and uni-lateral action turned a constitutional concern into a county-wide mess.


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