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Documentation of the 'Athletes in Action' program in Athens School District: 11/97 - 5/5/99

Summary: The documentation reflects an appropriate and respectful request by Athens' parents, families, and members of the broader community to the Athens School District Administrators and the School Board concerning a violation by the School District of these citizens' First Amendment rights under the Constitutions of Pennsylvania and the United States by the School District. The response of the Athens School administrators and the School Directors has been a pattern of avoidance and then an arrogant dismissal of these concerns.

Chronology:

  • November 27, 1997 - Athletes in Action (AIA) ads appeared in local papers
  • November 1997 - In rapid response, Athens school parent Nell Allen and Janelle Curlin-Taylor, Pastor of the UU Church, contacted Principal Hendricks and other Administrators about the planned AIA program and the First Amendment problems that have been associated with AIA in other schools. Parents in other school districts also contacted their local school administrators. A similar type of bait and switch evangelical program was cancelled in the Towanda schools response to the heads up from parents familiar with AIA type tactics.
  • December 2, 1997. AIA program was held in Athens Schools anyway but cancelled in Towanda.
  • December 11, 1997 Letter to Hendricks from Nell Allen.
  • December 17, 1997 Letter to Hendricks with assessment of AIA program by Nell Allen.
  • December 17, 1997 Article (1799 words) by Clark Moeller about the AIA program appeared in local papers.
  • January 1998: Jeff Dann, Athens parent, spoke to the Superintendent about the AIA issue and he said the school's policies already covered the issue. Jeff asked for a copy and got the building use policy which said nothing about the Constitutional issue.
  • February 1998: Jeff Dann gave Superintendent Boyer and Pat Barrett background information about AIA.
  • March 1998: Sup. Boyer told Jeff Dann he was waiting to hear from Atty. Pat Barrett, their corp. counsel.
  • May 1998: Pat Barrent told Jeff Dann he'd make a recommendation on an action to the Board
  • June 1998: Jeff Dann wrote to President of the School Board requesting the policy dealing with the Constitutional issue. He got no response.
  • December 1, 1998: Barb Coyle read a letter to the School Board requesting action by the Board. She got no response.
  • January 29, 1999, Barb Coyle called School Board President Dick Stedge and left a detailed message. He did not return her call.
  • March 8, 1999 Penni Eldredge-Martin wrote a letter to the President of the Board asking for a response.
  • One and one half years from first contact: 5/5/99: Pat Barrett, Atty, wrote that the Board was taking no action because they couldn't verify the issue about the AIA and if anything new had happened we would have informed them.
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Overview

Area public schools permit evangelical proselytizing during school time
Clark Moeller, Dec. 15, 1997 -- Over the last two weeks about 2,000 public school students in our area have attended school sponsored assemblies where evangelical proselytizing has taken place. The public Junior and/or Senior High Schools in Northeast Bradford, Athens, and Sayre, Pennsylvania, and Waverly and Tioga Central, New York, have held assemblies during class hours for the students which featured either Athletes in Action (AIA), which is part of Campus Crusade for Christ, or Mr. Bob Holmes, who advertises himself as a "one-man volleyball team". These programs were sponsored by some local churches such as the North Rome Wesleyan Church and Student Venture, "a local Christian development program." Stan & Barb Janiak of Athens are the contact people listed in its flyer.
   The official 1997 brochure of Athletes in Action states its purpose is "to challenge people to get to know God personally through a relationship with Jesus Christ." The news release for AIA states, "Athletes in Action is a Christian basketball team" (Daily Review 11/27/97). The news release advertizing Bob Holmes's program was headlined, "Evangelist, one man volleyball team."(Daily Review 12/3//97)     These advertisements alerted local citizens who had already heard about AIA's reputation for using assembly programs to engage in Christian evangelical proselytizing, which is a violation of our Constitutionally protected right of religious liberty. During assemblies, AIA has also promoted its evening program of Christian evangelical proselytizing, which is a non-school sponsored event. The local Student Venture flyer describes this evening program as, "a non-denominational outreach to bring teens to Jesus Christ," and says, "The Athletes will be giving a clear message of how Jesus Christ has changed their lives."
    There are parents of children in the public schools who do not want their children exposed to any religious evangelism in school regardless of which religious message is being preached. And they should be able to assume that public school Administrators and School Boards will respect this concern because religious proselytizing in public schools is a violation of the Pennsylvania, New York, and U.S. Constitutions.
    With this concern in mind, members of the Bradford County Alliance for Democracy (BCAFD), contacted many of the Principals or Superintendents in person or by phone about their concern. In Towanda, Jeff Gonzalez spoke with Principal Frank Hoffman and Assistant Principal Steve Gobble. A parent in Northeast Bradford spoke with Superintendent Nielson. Parents and concerned citizens spoke with Principal Signorino in Sayre and Principal Hendricks in Athens. In Sayre and Towanda, the Principals were given the advertising literature. Principal Hendricks said he was familiar with AIA and said he would stop the assembly program if any religious language was used.
    In response to BCAFD efforts and the obvious evangelical nature of the advertising literature, Towanda Principal Hoffman and Assistant Principal Gobble canceled Mr Holmes's assembly program.
    However, the assemblies went ahead as planned in Northeast, Athens, Sayre, Waverly, and Tioga Central . Members of the BCAFD or their children monitored most of these. In Northeast, Bob Holmes waited until the very end of his program to make his plug for Jesus Christ. In Athens' Rowe Jr. H.S., the AIA athletes professed that "how we find inner strength to overcome the pressures of the outside is through a strong belief in the God of the universe and a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ." In Athens H.S. similar language was used at the end of the program and Principal Hendricks did nothing to interrupt the program and stop the evangelical talk. Furthermore, the AIA handed out its evangelical literature and met with students at the end of the assembly.
    In Towanda, Mr. Holmes's evening evangelical religious program was permitted to continue because it was not school sponsored. I attended his evening program. I can report that Bob Holmes is a superb volleyball player with a killer serve. He beat several good teams all by himself. Afterwards, in his evangelical program, he asked the crowd "wouldn't you all like to see prayer back in the public school?" This question was met with enthusiastic clapping. I was wondering just how many of these folks would be clapping if that pitch for school prayer had been made by Rev. Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Moon, or a David Koresh of the Branch Davidians.
    However, as we all know, prayer is allowed in public schools and has always been allowed. Any kid can pray any time he or she wants so long as it does not interfere with the school and the prayer is not part of a school sponsored program. For examples, student prayer clubs are legal so long as these are not conducted during regularly scheduled class time, including study halls. What is prohibited are public school sponsored prayer or religious programs such as Child Evangelical Fellowship because the school is an agent of the government, has publically elected officials, and receives tax support. This prohibition prevents the government from dictating religious practices. This is why we have religious freedom.
    No other people in the world enjoy the religious freedom we do in the United States. The Canadians do not. The British, Australians, Norwegians, Germans, French do not. The people in most of these countries see their tax dollars used to support the official state religion regardless of what their personal beliefs might be.
    It is only the people of the United States who are free from forced government-sponsored religious taxes or religious practices. We have this freedom because our Founding Fathers added the First Amendment to our Constitution in 1791.This created the separation of church and state. Today, every elected school board member in Pennsylvania takes an oath of office agreeing that he or she will uphold the Constitutions of the United States and Pennsylvania, which include provisions for the separation of church and state.
    One of the most dramatic results of religious freedom in the United States is that we have the most active and vibrant religious communities in the world. There are over 1,600 different religions and denominations in America. Fifty percent of these were formed in just the last 30 years. Most Americans identify themselves as Christians, but there are so many differences in belief among people who call themselves Christian that it is hard to make meaningful generalizations about what these beliefs have in common. Just among those who identify themselves as Evangelical, there are 14 different denominational subdivisions, according to the "Handbook of Denominations in The United States," Abington Press, Nashville, 1995.
    The Bradford/Sullivan counties Donnelly Directory shows 35 different denominations in the yellow pages, which together list 127 separate places of worship. Assuming that of our two-county population of 68,000, 40% attend church, the U.S. average, then there are 214 church attenders per church on average. But these church members or attenders and those who do not attend church have deep differences of opinion about religion. That is why there are many different denominations and perhaps why 60% of the people do not attend church.
    Regardless of parents' religious affiliations, they do not want their children forced to listen to evangelical proselytizing about religious beliefs they do not share. This proselytizing is particularly obnoxious when it happens in public school, where children are a captive audience. Having control over your children's religious education is a basic concept of religious liberty. "I do not want church groups controlling the schools of our country," Eleanor Roosevelt said, "they must remain free."
    Yet it is just this religious freedom that some evangelical religious folks want to distroy so they can force their own religious practice on the rest of us. Also, unfortunately, there are some locally elected school board members who seem to have forgotten their oath of office and have permitted programs like Campus Crusade for Christ, Athletes in Action, and the volleyball guy to practice their evangelical proselytizing in assemblies sponsored by public schools, as happened in Athens and Northeast School Districts.
    In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court once again upheld the concept of the separation of church and state. Justice Kennedy wrote, "Religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the state." In 1990, Justice Stevens wrote, "The government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion." This neutrality has been violated, in my opinion, by a number of the administrators in Northeast, Sayre, Athens, Waverly, and Tioga Central public schools. In 1952, Justice Jackson wrote, "The day that this country ceases to be free for irreligion, it will cease to be free for religion - - except for the sect that can win political power." And political power is just what the Christian Coalition is working for, as everyone knows who watches the news. And the complimentary strategy of Campus Crusade For Christ for 1997 and 1998, is to put an Athletes in Action type evangelical program into every public junior and senior high schools in the United States.
    The incidents we have just experienced in Bradford County are part of a pattern that has been evident all across the United States. These threats to religious freedom have become so serious that religious leaders from across the country have formed The Interfaith Alliance (TIA) to counter the assault on the First Amendment by religious fundamentalists. The Interfaith Alliance is a national organization with chapters in most of our states. The TIA Board of Directors includes representatives from main line Protestant denominations such as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Unitarian Universalists; Roman Catholics; Jewish congregations; the National and World Council of Churches; and many others. The Statement of Principles of the TIA follows:
    "At a time when Americans fear our values are being undermined, our communities frayed and the strength of our families and our children's future are threatened, The Interfaith Alliance offers hope and renewal.
    The Interfaith Alliance believes in the dignity of the individual and the importance of community. These religious principles compel us to take responsibility for both our own communities and our larger national community.
    As a non-partisan organization, The Interfaith Alliance offers Americans a mainstream, faith-based agenda committed to the positive role of religion as a healing and constructive force in public life. The Interfaith Alliance draws on shared religious principles to challenge those who manipulate religion to promote an extreme political agenda based on a false gospel of irresponsible individualism. This false gospel threatens our families, our values and our future.
    We believe we must not only give voice to mainstream values, but also take action to preserve and express our shared beliefs. We are committed to supporting families, ensuring opportunity and honoring freedom."
    In addition, TIA supports the U.S. Constitutional protection of separation of church and state and the religious liberty it guarantees. I believe most Americans agree with TIA. There is a time and place for evangelical proselytizing, but a public school sponsored event is neither the time nor the place.

Clark Moeller,
Member Bradford Alliance for Democracy
P.O. Box 131, Burlington, PA 18814
This article appeared without the endnotes in The Daily Review in December 1997

End notes:

  1. Student Venture flyer, contact person Stan & Barb Janiak - given to Jenelle Curlin-Taylor.
  2. Daily Review: 11/27/97 and AIA brochure, 1997
  3. Daily Review, 12/ 3/97
  4. Phone conversation between Jeff Gonzalez and Bob Holmes 12/7/97- see Jeff's notes.
  5. NYT Magazine, 12/7/97, page 60
  6. My Day, 7/8/49, compilers theGreat Quatations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA 1991, p82
  7. U.S. Supreme Court Judge, Anthony M. Kennedy, according Mark S. Hoffman, ed, Notatable Quotes, in 1992 the World Almanac & Bood of Facts 1993, NY Pharos Books, 1992,. P32
  8. John Paul Steves, majority opinion US Supreme Court, Wallace v Jaffree, 7/4/85, from Daniel Baker, ed, Political Quations. Detroit: Gale research, In 1990 p191
  9. Justice Robert H. Jackson, dissenting opinion, U.S. Supreme Count, Zorach v Clausor 4/7/52, from Daniel Baker, ed, Political Quations. Detroit: Gale research, In 1990 p190
  10. The Interfaith Alliance's web site: www.tia.org
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December 1, 1998 To: Athens Area School District Board of Directors, Athens, PA
Re: Athletes in Action program

Dear Directors,
   We are a group of parents of Athens Area School district children and/or tax payers. We are supporters of a strong public school system in general and specifically want to support our Athens Area School District teachers and school administrators who work so hard to educate our
children. We also appreciate the time you give, as School Directors, which benefit each of our children.
   However, even in a community of people with similar goals, actions or behaviors can occur which cause deep uneasiness to one party of another. Certainly, a school administrator or teacher has felt from time to time that he or she was misunderstood by a child or parents.
Often the opportunity for clarity on the issue seems not to happen for one reason or another. And then the moment passes and nothing is really resolved.
   It is in this spirit of finding mutual understanding and clarity that we bring to you a concern that has greatly troubled us. We feel we can find agreement and hope you do also.
   On December 2, 1997, the school administrators permitted the Campus Crusade for Christ's Athletes in Action to conduct a so-called anti-drug program in Athens Area Schools. This was accurately described in the article by Clark Moeller published in the Daily Review on 12/17/97 (attached). Second, the quality of the program was evaluated by Nell Allen in her letter to you of December 17, 1997 (attached). Third, we submit a pamphlet handed out by Athletes in Action at both Rowe Jr. High School and at the high school. (attached).
   This Athletes in Action program was a violation of our and your Constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom as laid our in the first Amendment which has been defined and supported by numerous U.S. Supreme Court cases over the years.
   We would like to put this episode behind us, to have closure on this issue, by having this Board of Directors pass a resolution at a regular meeting. This resolution would affirm to us and the Athens area community that the Athens Area School district board will be vigilant in not allowing a repetition of the Athletes in Acton program or similar religious evangelical programs in our School District. For our part, we will consider this issue closed and will not pursue it further.
   We suggest the following resolution be adopted by this Board tonight or within the next two meetings.: "Whereas, we, the School Directors of the Athens Area School District, Athens, Pennsylvania, are committed to uphold the Pennsylvania and the U.S. Constitutions, including their provisions for religious freedom, which each agreed to when we were sworn into office, and
   "Whereas, we understand that the Athletes in Action program held in our schools could have been seen as a violation of our citizens' Constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and was, in fact, viewed by many of them as such a violation;
   "Therefore, be it resolved that as the Directors of this school District, we will make a good faith effort to make sure that such programs are not held in our schools again, and shall direct the administrators of this District to comply with the spirit of this resolution."

Thank you,

Barbara Coyle and Jim Shaw, Marilyn and John Palmer, Jeff Dann, Mary Nell Allen, Shalamuth Shafer, Penni and Brooks Eldredge-Martin, Sue and Jerry Kinchy
RR 2 Box 177, Ulster, PA 18850

Time Sequence
   Members of our group have been in contact and conversation with the professional staff of the Athens School District on this Athletes In Action issue for over a year, even before AIA appeared in our schools.
   In addition to the contacts discussed in the news article and other attachments,

  • Jan. 1998: We spoke to the Superintendent about the issue and he said the school’s policy already cover the issue. We asked for a copy and got the building use policy which said nothing about the Constitutional issue.
  • Feb/March 1998: Superintendent Boyer and Pat Barrett were given background information on AIA
  • March/April 1998: Sup. Boyer said he was waiting to hear Pat Barrett
  • May/June: Pat Barrett said he’d make a recommendation on action to the Board. To date we have not been informed if anything has been done.
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March 8, 1999

Richard Stedge, President
Athens Area School Board
Willow Street
Athens, PA 18810

Dear Mr. Stedge,
    Last October parents and taxpayers of the Athens School District appeared before your Board asking for action on the Athletes In Action (AIA) event that took place more than a year and a quarter ago, December 8, 1997. At the Oct. 1998 meeting, we provided the Board a letter, a suggested resolution, and extensive documentation showing we had been tried to prevent the AIA problem from occurring before in took place on 12/8/97 with your administrative staff but to no avail. Since then we made numerous efforts to resolve the issue with Superintendent Boyer during 1998, who eventually gave us a school policy which had nothing to do with the issue we have raised.
   At the October 1998 we asked for the help of the Board and your Board said the issue would be addressed. We took you at your word. It is now five months late and we have heard nothing. When our member, Barb Coyle, called you, you told her that we should contact the Board's attorney, Attorney Barrett. However, it was 9 months ago, in June 1998, that Att. Barrett told Jeff Dann of our group that he, Attny Barrett ,would make a recommendation to the Board and nothing happened. So we don't see that as a very productive route.
   We believe the AIA event was a violation of our First Amendment rights under the Constitution of the United States. It is time for this School Board to step up to its responsibilities and address the issue as it said it would five months ago. We have given you the background, the documentation, and a reasonable resolution to adopt the can provide closure to the issue.
   We want a formal answer from the Board, not another run around with your staff. I am sure you would feel the same way, if you were in our shoes. It is time.

Thank you.

Penni Eldredge-Martin
Chair, Bradford County Alliance for Democracy.

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Conclusion to AIA
  In summary, the Athens Board of Education ignored the requests of the BCAD. We contacted a lawyer who felt the BCAD probably had a federal civil rights case.  However, to pursue such a case in federal court, BCAD need to have someone with “standing”. That is, some parents whose child had been exposed to the evangelical proselytizing of the AIA and these parents were willing to take the school district to court. Because BCAD had no parents willing to go to court on the issue, that was the end of the issue.  However, next time when an issue similar to the AIA arose, the BCAD under took a much more aggressive approach on potential violations of the First Amendment. See the Power Team project.

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