Members of the Tipton community gathered Thursday evening at St. Andrew School for a town hall meeting regarding recent changes in religious traditions in the Tipton R-VI School District.
On July 13, the Tipton Board of Education received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation stating FFRF had received complaints regarding the district’s practice of opening school board meetings with prayer and singing a Christian hymn as part of the Candlelight awards ceremony in May. According to the FFRF website, the organization’s purpose is “to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.”
As a result, the district reviewed its practices with its legal team and decided to discontinue both uses of religion. The decision, however, sparked an outcry from parents and community members who say they think the district’s decision is a “knee-jerk reaction” to the complaints of only a few.
After a prayer from a local minister, Thursday’s meeting began with Michele Stufflebean, who organized the event with Sherry Kuttenkuler, reading the letter in its entirety to the crowd. The long letter included detailed information about the two incidents in question, cited court cases related to religion in public schools, and why the organization believes the practices should be discontinued in Tipton.
“The singing of the hymn at the ceremony is on par with other religious practices that courts have ruled are unconstitutional,” Stufflebean read. “… The message received by participants and attendees is a religious message and the activity looks like a religious exercise to a reasonable observer. … Even if participation were not required, students still feel immense pressure to act like their instructors and peers. Public school staff and administrators should be aware of these concerns and ensure all students are made to feel welcome at all programs. Singing the hymn sends the message they are outsiders and not full members of the community.”
Superintendent Daniel Williams spoke to the crowd to inform them of the changes and dispel untrue rumors, such as the widely-spread rumor that students were being told they could no longer pray in school.
“We have not told students they can’t pray during school, after school, during events, after events, anything with that regard. No one in our district has made that insinuation,” he said. “Students are absolutely protected under the same clause of the Constitution with religious rights, as long as it doesn’t create disruption to the learning environment.
“… If a student walks into a classroom and reads a prayer or says a prayer to themself, that’s absolutely OK. If a group of students decide to hold hands at the lunch table and offer a prayer before each and every meal, it’s absolutely OK. What makes it OK is that it’s student-led and it’s not school- or staff-sponsored. It’s a very clear boundary.”
For example, coaches can no longer lead their team in prayer before a game, but students can lead a prayer themselves if they choose to do so.
Williams also told the audience about other changes, such as removing a portrait of Jesus Christ from the elementary school library so it could not be misconstrued as the district’s endorsement of a specific religion, and the district will work to include speakers not affiliated with the local ministerial alliance during graduation, as previously only those religious persons were sought out.
Two elementary students, fifth-grader Julian Medlock and sixth-grader Zachary Medlock, have started a petition to bring the portrait back and were present Thursday night petition in hand, staying after the meeting ended to gain more signatures.
One citizen asked Williams if the changes were in an effort to not single out one religion, to which Williams replied yes, but the man continued by saying that as a Christian he’s tired of being singled-out.
“That picture hanging there, it’s not disrupting anything. You just said they can do anything they want to do as long as it’s not disrupting the environment. I would say most people probably didn’t know there was a picture of Jesus Christ in the library,” the man said. “… My point being, singing a hymnal at a candlelight service is not disrupting anything. I think it’s a huge knee-jerk reaction because some people around the country sued some people. … I’m tired as a Christian person of being pushed and pushed.”
Gaining some of the loudest applause all night, another man said he thinks “all this is really crazy, our world is all backwards. We talk about the Constitution separation of church and state. It was meant to keep government out of the church, not the church out of government.”
Williams reminded those gathered that the school has to remain neutral and can’t endorse any religion, and that they consulted the district’s legal team when making the changes. He also said he understands people’s frustrations and that he appreciated that citizens offering comments were understanding that the situation is not the district’s fault, but rather it’s how the law is written.
The final citizen to speak offered a unique perspective, as Brad Homan is both a minister and a Tipton Junior High teacher.
“First of all, let me say this — that guy right there (referring to Williams) is not our enemy. I want to make that very, very clear. Second of all, what I want to say is as a minister inside the schools but also a teacher. … When I heard about the situation, what’s happening, I’ll be the first to say I absolutely hate and abhor it,” Homan said. “However, that being said, one thing that I see, something I have been praying for for a long time for this community is that people would step up and stand for their faith and for once, I look at the image of Christ and I absolutely hate it being taken down from the library, but the image of Christ is inside the school hallway every time our kids are stepping up.
“I don’t know if you know (Thursday), but the FCA had the biggest turnout we’ve had in many years because kids are stepping up. … It’s not the school’s responsibility to teach Jesus Christ to kids, it’s the parents’ responsibility at home to teach them that. That’s just something to think about.”
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or @NicoleRCooke.