• Teacher crosses line between church, state, say Irasburg parents
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     | January 24,2008
     

    IRASBURG — Mel Downs doesn't object to academic discussions over the relative merits of varying religious philosophies.

    But when his daughter came home from her public school with a handout titled "Why Jesus Is Better Than Santa Claus," the Irasburg father took offense.

    "It isn't about my religion or me being biased in some way," Downs said. "It's about the separation of church and state that is supposed to exist in my daughter's classroom."

    Downs' daughter attends seventh grade at Irasburg Village School. She received the "Jesus" handout just before Christmas vacation, and Downs says it reflects a pattern of religious-themed material being taught by Wally Rogers, his daughter's language arts teacher.

    When Downs' daughter began the school year in September, he said, the Ten Commandments were mounted to the classroom wall, Christian books filled the classroom bookshelf, and a school-funded Web page, used by the teacher, included links to Christian Web sites.

    Complaints to school officials, including a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, have prompted administrators to remove some of the books and Web links in question. But Downs and at least one other Irasburg parent have lingering concerns over an apparent constitutional breach of the separation of church and state.

    "To date, nothing has been resolved," says Robin Voitle, whose daughter attends seventh grade at the Village School. "This is about the Constitution. It's about right and wrong."

    In a letter to Stephen Urgenson, superintendent of the Orleans Central Supervisory Union, Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, said his organization believes the teacher's conduct is unconstitutional.

    Of particular concern, the letter says, are links on the teacher's Web site to "evidence for creation" and an "Anne of Green Gables" link that sends students to a "Young Ladies Christian Fellowship" Web page.

    The teacher's "accelerated reader program classroom reading list contains a large number of books with Christian themes," according to the letter. Gilbert writes that "the handout, 'Why Jesus Is Better Than Santa Claus,' is just one example, we are told, of the kind of material discussed and passed out in (the teacher's) classroom."

    Urgenson did not respond to an interview request for this story. A message left at Rogers home phone number also was not returned.

    Gilbert, who spoke with Urgenson earlier this week, said the superintendent had sent a memo to faculty and staff at the school delineating students' constitutional right to a separation of church and state.

    "My impression is the superintendent at least has been making an effort to educate staff around the constitutional issues around church-state separation, as regards schools," Gilbert said. "I think the bottom line is what happens next."

    Voitle says she has been unimpressed by the school's response to her concerns. Her daughter, she said, was singled out by the teacher for raising the issue with administrators. And she says objectionable links remain on the Web site.

    Paul Simmons, principal of the Irasburg Village School, said, "We do not condone the teaching of religion in public school.

    "I can tell you that there were a few items removed from the classroom," Simmons said. "I am confident that what we have been doing is appropriate. I'm not sure it has always met the parents' satisfaction, but I'm confident what we are doing is proper and appropriate."

    By Wednesday morning, public access to the teacher's Web site, found at Wildbranch.com, had been restricted. The Web designer, a private contractor for the school, according to Simmons, creates personal Web pages for teachers. The sites are purportedly aimed at helping students with homework assignments.

    "After the complaints, I talked with the teacher and I know at least one link was removed," Simmons said.

    As for the "Why Jesus Is Better…" handout, Simmons said it was not a widely distributed piece of literature.

    "From my understanding that was not a handout. It was something the teacher had and a student saw and asked to see," Simmons said. "It was not a handout. It was never intended to be a handout. It should not have been in sight of a student, but that's in the past."

    Voitle's said her daughter has suffered harassment at the school for voicing objections, and that school officials have yet to adequately address her concerns.

    "It's kind of baffling," she said. "It's like they're trying to sweep us under the carpet like we're going to go away, but we're not."

    Gilbert said the ACLU will continue to monitor the situation, though he's encouraged by the superintendent's action thus far.

    "I'm going to assume the teacher stops the impermissible teaching of personal religious beliefs," Gilbert said. "… But it's also important that the students who are in the classroom and who have complained or their parents who have complained are not be treated any differently than any other students. Otherwise that could constitute harassment."

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