January 25, 2008

Wally Rogers, the Preaching Teacher of Irasburg, Vermont

I've written on a number of occasions about the difference between how religion is looked upon in the southeast and northeast. In North Florida, religion is a constant presence and it's expected that everyone agrees that Christianity is The Best Thing in the World. In New England, the general attitude is that religion is a personal matter and not something to be imposed upon others. I've yet to have someone presume to wish me a "blessed day" in the months since my return to the Northeast.

That isn't to say that the Screamin' Jesus types are entirely absent. One has turned up in a seventh grade classroom in Irasburg, Vermont, as reported in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus.

Teacher crosses line between church, state, say Irasburg parents

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..."

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..."

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...

"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've tried accessing Rogers' website to check this out for myself, but a password is required. I assume only students and other school personnel would have that.

My bet is that the community at large doesn't support the idea of a classroom as a preacher's pulpit. Lacking that kind of support, the teacher will probably have to do the right thing and stick to teaching properly secular seventh grade subjects rather than Sunday school. I wonder how different the situation would have been somewhere like Washington County, Florida.

But not much.

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