Many people, even residents of Culpeper County, Va., are shocked to learn that public school students in the county are routinely taken out of class to be proselytized with Christianity. “That’s illegal!” everyone exclaims. If more people knew about this practice outside of Culpeper and other counties where it goes on, I imagine it would receive as much attention as proposals to have a “moment of silence” or post ten ancient orders on a wall. On the other hand, meetings of the Culpeper town and county governments are opened with requests for help from Jesus and I’ve never heard anyone complain about that, other than myself. (Nor have I been able to detect that he’s helping, whatever that would mean.)
A parent has complained to me about the bible lessons as part of school. That’s how I learned about the program. A woman was going through a list of complaints related to her daughter, who she said was smart, bored, and struggling in Culpeper schools. One complaint was that when her daughter opted out of Bible class, she was allegedly treated badly and given extra work apparently as a punishment for her decision. Her decision was not surprising, since she was not religious.
I asked the editor of the Culpeper News – where I am a reporter – about it, and he expressed disbelief that such a program existed (as well as a lack of enthusiasm to print anything about it if it did).
I called Kent Willis at the Virginia ACLU, and he said the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld religion-teaching programs as part of public schools under certain conditions. The teaching has to be done off school grounds (one inch off school grounds is good enough). It has to be done during non-instructional hours (whatever those may be). And the kids left behind must not be stigmatized. Willis said in some cases schools have offered candy to kids who will participate and/or have threatened those who don’t. He said often the courses are taught in a trailer or “Bible Bus” that parks at the school property line or – in some cases – on the school grounds.
Willis said he opposes such programs because they “entangle” the schools in “the religious process.” The state is not supposed to promote or inhibit religion, he said, and “It would be very hard to have a program that did not promote religion.”
In addition, “the school is changing the course of its day to set up religious programs. And these are not for all religions, just a majority religion. So, they are discriminatory. Those who practice a minority religion or no religion receive a lesser educational experience.”
Willis said the ACLU favors having schools accommodate religions, for example by letting kids out of schools for their religious holidays. But, “This is more than an accommodation. It is the school rearranging its schedule for classes to promote a majority religion.”
But could this really be happening in Culpeper? I called the Superintendent of Schools, Larry Brooks. He said there was such a program, officially called Release Time for Religious Education. It came (in a trailer) to each elementary school once per month and was run by an outside group. The man in charge was named Mason Hutcheson. “The school does not supervise or manage the program,” Brooks said. “Kids are not encouraged or asked to participate.” Brooks said he thought the classes lasted 45 minutes, and that he knew nothing about the curriculum. Students who chose not to participate would “continue with class,” he said. Teachers would “try to do the least important stuff during that time.” A story was written about the program in the Culpeper Star Exponent a couple of years ago, Brooks said.
Brooks said he sent a letter to parents emphasizing the need for class time and suggesting that they think twice about sacrificing it for Bible studies, dental appointments, or helping at home.
Brooks could not describe the program in any detail. “I deliberately try not to know much about it, because it’s right on the edge of entanglement with teaching religion.”
Mason Hutcheson, who could describe the program, expressed reluctance to do so and refused to let me sit in on one of his classes.
I knew that any article I could come up with would not be a happy-smiley one and would probably not be printed for six months anyway – if then. So, I let it drop. I’ll be curious to see, however, what happens when more non-Christian people move to Culpeper. Will this backwardness continue to be tolerated?
Regardless of what is taught in Culpeper’s Bible Bus (be it “Love your enemy and tolerate differences in order to improve the world” or “Pray that homosexuals suffer violent deaths, and campaign for Christian candidates”) isn’t it a little disturbing that the superintendent of schools considers it his obligation to remain ignorant of what his students are being taught? Isn’t an arrangement that requires people to take themselves “out of the loop” unacceptable? Can Brooks’ ignorance excuse him for whatever may be being taught on the Bible Bus any more than George Bush’s alleged ignorance could excuse him for Iran Contra?
And can any fair resolution be reached for what to do with the kids who don’t participate? Should they just have their time wasted, or should they be taught material that the other kids will miss? Neither solution seems good, and attempts to finesse it with phrases like “non-instructional time” don’t seem to add anything.
Some of the leading politicians in Virginia 250 years ago – Mason, Madison, Jefferson – came up with the idea of disconnecting religion from government so as not to impose one person’s religion on another. The idea is as important now as it was then. It is important to those who profess some religion other than the most common one in Culpeper. And it is important to those of us who profess no religion.
Other topics, such as history, biology, math, French, and music, can be taught and simultaneously debated. Consensus is common, and where it is not, disagreement is acceptable. “Believe in Jesus” cannot be made to fit into the same sort of framework as “The Industrial Revolution brought many changes,” or “5+6=11.” It’s different because it doesn’t mean anything. It can’t be debated. There can be no explanation of how one goes about doing it or failing to do it. I can’t observe someone and determine whether he or she “believes in Jesus.” Those who enjoy saying “I believe in Jesus,” should be free to do so. Those who do not should be left alone. And students in public schools should be taught teachable subjects.
I am convinced that religion discourages thought. Its many beneficial results are outweighed by results such as faith in the market and in Marxism, belief in the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality, defense of various destructive “rights,” adherence to principals and authorities even when harmful, avoidance of needed medical care, acceptance of the status quo as divinely decreed, faith that people get what they “deserve,” sexism, racism, divisiveness, and fear of sexual pleasure. If we must promote these things on Sundays, let’s at least not do so during the week in public schools at the expense of everyone who is paying for our community’s children to be educated.