School's policy unlikely to change

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A Steamboat Springs School District policy that allows members of the public to distribute religious and other materials in the middle school and high school appears to have the support of the majority of School Board members, making it unlikely the policy will be changed.

At Monday's School Board meeting, board member Jeff Troeger formally requested that the School Board seek legal advice regarding the current policy, titled "Distribution/Posting of Material and Dissemination of Certain Spoken Material." Troeger, a critic of the policy, thinks the district is violating the separation of church and state by allowing religious materials to be handed out in district schools.

But his request ran into opposition from School Board President Paula Stephenson and board member Pat Gleason, who voiced support for the existing policy. Stephenson, Gleason and board member Tami Havener were School Board members when the policy was adopted in June 2003 after a dispute about church youth group leaders being allowed to meet with students during lunch at the middle school. Troeger was one of the most outspoken critics on the issue, and his persistence helped lead to policy change, though it fell short of what he wanted. He was elected to the School Board in November 2003.

The policy has come into question again after local members of The Gideons International set up a small table at the middle school two weeks ago. The Gideons left Bibles on the table for any students interested in taking one. The Gideons weren't allowed to approach students or hand Bibles to them. The incident sparked complaints from several parents.

On Monday, Stephenson said board members should discuss their stances on the policy before seeking legal advice.

"There are still three of us on this board that developed this policy a couple of years ago," Stephenson said. "We put a lot of time and energy into this policy."

The policy, among other things, allows members of the public onto school grounds to distribute printed, non-school related materials provided it doesn't occur in an elementary school or during regularly scheduled class time. The distribution of printed and spoken material is allowed in the middle and high schools as long as the location of such activities is chosen in a non-discriminatory manner by building principals.

Gleason said the policy reflects community values, particularly that groups and individuals should be granted access to Steamboat schools.

Troeger thinks the policy -- and what it allows -- is illegal.

"I believe we're in violation of separation of church and state when we allow religious groups into schools," Troeger said.

Stephenson disagrees.

"We looked at this very closely when the issue came up last time," Stephenson said Tuesday. "I'm very confident the policy we wrote doesn't violate the separation of church and state."

She said the wording of the policy could be tweaked to make it easier to read and understand. A former Colorado Association of School Boards attorney who is providing advice to the district as it reviews all of its policies has suggested the board discuss the reasons for the policy as well as its wording.

"There might be one or two small word changes to make it clearer," Stephenson said.

But with at least three board members apparently supporting the policy, it's unlikely its scope will change.

"I can't see it changing dramatically, but who's to say?" Stephenson said.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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