Religion in the schools

Steamboat district weighing changes to existing policies

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— The Steamboat Springs School Board will vote next week on three policies that, if implemented, could restrict the access religious groups and their representatives have to Steamboat schools.

If board member Tom Sharp has his way, none of the proposed policies will pass.

The policy issue dates back to last year, when some parents of Steamboat Springs Middle School students complained about the presence of a Euzoa Bible Church youth representatives at the school during the lunch hour. Other groups such as Winter Sports Club also have come to the school during lunch.

Initially, group representatives were permitted to sit in the cafeteria. Eventually the groups were asked to set up a table in the school's hallway, sit behind the table and interact with students only if approached. All groups have complied with the guidelines, middle school Principal Tim Bishop has said.

The practice of allowing groups into the school during the school day has been defended by the school board using its "Distribution/Posting of Material" policy, which, in part, defines district buildings as "limited open forums" within the meaning of the Federal Equal Access Act.

Critics of the Distribution/Posting of Material policy say it doesn't address the issue of the district's willingness to allow groups into schools because materials aren't always distributed or posted by the groups.

While the district -- under the advice of Chris Gdowski, its Denver-based attorney -- has maintained that its policies are legal and would stand up in court, board President Paul Fisher suggested in February that the existing policies aren't clear enough and don't address all sides of the issue.

The board was presented with three new policies, written by Gdowski, at Monday's board study session, much to the surprise of Sharp.

"I saw no need for a new policy, and I said that numerous times," Sharp said. "I didn't ask for them to be drafted."

Superintendent Cyndy Simms said the district has been advised by Gdowski to change its policies. "After (Gdowski's) conversations with the ACLU," Simms said, "he is advising the board to consider making some revisions to its policies."

Two of the revised policies, if approved, would take the place of the Distribution/Posting of Material policy.

The third policy is a revision of the district's "Community Use of School Facilities" policy. The proposed policy, titled "Community Access to Schools," acknowledges that community members can "enrich the educational experience of students by exposing them to noncurricular ideas and activities," but sets restrictions as to who will be allowed access to schools based on whether an individual or group will disrupt the school, promote vulgar and obscene behavior, and endanger the health and safety of students, among other reasons.

However, one of the restrictions caught the ire of Sharp.

The restriction reads that "no community group or community member will be allowed access to school facilities pursuant to this policy if the building principal or designee has a factual basis for believing that the group or individual: (2) will proselytize a religious belief to students without the consent of the student's parent of guardian."

The school district can't favor a policy that makes it an advocate against religion and invokes prior restraint, Sharp said. Such a policy would constitute a misreading of the First Amendment, he said.

Furthermore, the policy leaves it in the judgment of school principals to decide whether proselytizing is occurring.

Under such a policy, the safe course for principals would be to disallow everything, he said.

"We're going to be in the policing business" if the policies are approved, Sharp said. "And it will be done subjectively."

"What are we teaching our children if we teach them prior restraint in the school and they go out into a world without prior restraint?" Sharp asked. "The (current) policy is working except for in the minds of a few parents and an ACLU chapter in Denver."

High school and middle school students are responsible enough to decide what messages they want to listen to, Sharp said.

"I don't think middle-schoolers and high-schoolers are too young to be in a school environment where, with spatial limitations, advocacy groups can make presentations," Sharp said. Kids are already flooded with ideas from television, movies and music, he said.

Critics of the existing policies say that religious issues should be discussed within individual families, not schools.

The board is scheduled to take action on the policies at next week's meeting.

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