A Message from Ellen 8-16-23
August 16, 2023
August 16, 2023
About two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the Richland School District 2 School Board to register my opposition to a proposal that they are considering that would allow students to be released during the school day and taken to a faith congregation for Religious Instruction during the school day. The letter I sent was sent under my name only and written on my own time. I do not speak for Forest Lake Presbyterian Church. Only the Session can do that. And I am aware that some of you may disagree with me on this. But I am convicted personally on this issue, and so I want you to know about this movement, consider my arguments, and act as you see fit, if you wish.
Release Time Religious Instruction is a program that walks the fine line between church and state, but has been declared legal, and is practiced in multiple school districts across the nation. Essentially a faith congregation asks the school to schedule elective classes (band, chorus, art, drama, etc.) in such a way that the school can accommodate students who, with a parent’s note, may leave the school for a 90-minute field trip each week where they go to a local faith congregation for religious instruction. Proponents say that it is legal, it requires a parent’s permission and so offers more choice, and it does not cost the school district any money. This is all true.
However, I oppose this proposal for many reasons. First, all things that are legal are not always advisable or helpful. Smoking is legal. In an age where many of us are worried about civil and political division, why approve a program that intentionally excludes children whose families practice another faith? I am all in favor of religious education. But I believe it should happen, as it does now, both before and after the school day. Second, I am confident that the staff at the schools who will be required to schedule classes to accommodate a local faith congregation, check to be sure that students have permission slips, and ensure that the volunteers in the faith congregations have up to date background checks would not agree that this program “costs the school district nothing.” If approved, it will cost our school staff very valuable time. Third, the children who participate will be choosing NOT to learn to play instrument, to sing, or to draw in order to attend these Bible Education field trips. As it stands, parents have all sorts of choices for religious instruction for their children, without having to give up free public instruction in the arts. Fourth, as our Compass site work has repeatedly underscored, the need for at-risk children is NOT to have the opportunity to leave school. School can be the one place where an at-risk child gets food, mental or physical health care, and consistent structure. The NEED is for faith congregations to provide resources both before and after school to support parents who either cannot or will not provide structure, supervision, and mentoring for their children.
I feel sure that the congregations asking for this special permission feel they are doing a good thing. I believe they are misguided. It blurs the lines between church and state, and I challenge them to give an example of when combining church and state (or political and religious power of any sort) has worked well. As an individual, as a long-time proponent of public education, and as a person of faith, I have made my objection clear to the School Board. I expect that the RSD2 School Board will vote at their meeting on August 22nd. I am normally slow to take sides, but this feels like the beginning of a road that I am not willing to travel. I welcome your comments, whether you agree or disagree.
See you in worship!
Ellen Fowler Skidmore