Ohio Public School District Values “Belief in God”; FFRF Responds August 29, 2009

Ohio Public School District Values “Belief in God”; FFRF Responds

This is one of the many reasons I like the Freedom From Religion Foundation: Even when they could easily win a lawsuit, that is their last option. It’s partly strategic (FFRF resources can then be used on other cases) and partly sympathetic (Do you not know the law? Let us educate you).

Lake Local Schools in Stark County, Ohio has the following mission statement:

Mission: Providing education to achieve success.

Vision: To be the best organization for learning.

We Value: Responsibility, honesty, respect, integrity, commitment, belief in God and religious freedom, our community, our partnerships, and every person as a unique individual with the ability to acquire and apply knowledge.

FFRF is asking them to drop the “belief in God” bit.

“They’re saying they don’t value you unless you believe in a god,” [FFRF co-president Annie Laurie] Gaylor said. The statement vilifies nonbelievers, she contends.

The foundation, based in Madison, Wis., wants the phrase “belief in God” removed from any of the district’s publications or Web postings. A letter to Superintendent Jeff Wendorf and Board of Education President Ken Brott ended with “we do need your assurances that your district will take immediate action to end this violation.”

“You can’t pray in the school, so how can you talk about believing in God in your school promotions?” Gaylor said.

While I do think the phrase needs to be dropped (though I don’t see a problem with keeping “religious freedom” there), I’m not as convinced that it is “shocking” and “one of the most egregious” church/state separation violations ever, as Annie Laurie suggests in the article. There have been many more blatant violations of the law in that regard — many of them fixed thanks to the work of FFRF.

Still, the lesson is a good one. Try to deal with the situation yourself in a nice way. If that doesn’t work, then you take more serious action. Don’t shoot first and ask questions later.

(Thanks to Todd for the link!)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Valdyr

    Ha, I just drove through Stark County the other day. Never would’ve expected it out of them… well, then again, I’m pretty sure we Ohioans amended our state constitution to never ever allow gay marriage, so maybe this shouldn’t surprise me. (I also vaguely recall hearing about another proposed law that–hopefully–never passed, extending the gay adoption ban to bisexuals, transgendered people, and even straight people who know GLBT people or live with them. WTF?)

    Anyway, where do people get the idea you can’t pray in schools? It’s just that they don’t allow prayers led by the school, because that would be official religious endorsement/favoritism. Correct me if I’m wrong, but students can privately pray their little hearts out whenever they like, so long as it’s not disruptive (e.g., during class time when they should be paying attention).

  • Sesoron

    That is rather frightening to me. That’s just one county south of here, and I’m going into teaching myself.

  • Stephen P

    Still, the lesson is a good one. Try to deal with the situation yourself in a nice way. If that doesn’t work, then you take more serious action. Don’t shoot first and ask questions later.

    Very much so. Indeed in the Netherlands that is almost a requirement. If you take someone to court, the judge will almost certainly ask what steps you took to try to resolve the case out of court. And if the answer is none, he/she will quite likely suspend the case and tell you to come back when you have tried. And if your attempt was a bit feeble, you’ll probably be told to try harder.

  • Sackbut

    Semantic quibbles:

    As Valdyr noted, it is not prohibited to pray in school. I don’t think claiming otherwise helps Gaylor’s message at all.

    But also, Gaylor claims that the phrase “we value … belief in God and religious freedom…” means “we don’t value you unless you believe in God.” This is incorrect, and also hurts Gaylor’s message.

    The phrase is clearly proposing, among a list of shared values for all in the school district, valuing belief in God; a statement asserting that belief in God is important. It’s implying that those who do not value belief in God are at odds with the shared values; THAT is the message to which Gaylor should be objecting. The phrase is NOT saying anything about what set of PEOPLE are valued by those in the school district.

    This may seem like a petty analysis, but her statements can be countered with objections that don’t address the actual situation. For instance, someone could point out that it is certainly legal to pray in school (true). Or, someone could say that the statement simply shows that they value people who believe in God, not that they don’t value people who don’t believe in God (the phrase does not say any of that, but such an objection could be made on the basis of Gaylor’s statement).

  • “ffrf RULES.!”

    Er… Well, they do a great job of showing sensible leadership. How’s that?

  • Joshua

    Sackbut and Valdyr make several very good points. One of the main messages that we atheists should be focusing on is that it is not illegal to pray in school, and that we have no problems with people praying (nondisruptively) in school. It is only coerced prayer or prayers led or endorsed by teachers or the administration that violate the rights of students. The religious right makes a ton of headway by claiming that you can’t pray in school, and we should be fighting that idea.

  • medussa

    @Sackbut: I agree with your first point, praying is absolutely legal in schools as long as it is private, but not with your second point.

    Starting the third line of the mission statement with “we value” and then a list definitely implies these are the traits they value in others, although it could also be interpreted as values they want to project outwardly, i.e. instill in others.

    And if these are traits they wish to see in you, then by implication they will not value you unless you have these traits.

  • Sesoron

    I think it’s possible to oversimplify the question of valuing belief in gods and what that says about their position on those of us who don’t believe. They say that they value “belief in God”. That doesn’t say that they consider nonbelievers as lacking value completely, but it does say that they value us less. It’s like saying that you’ll get points for having each of the things on this list: it’s unfair of them to give points on the basis of religion. When nonbelievers see “We value belief in God”, we take it to mean they value us less, and we’re rightly offended by the notion.

    And let’s also not quibble semantically over valuing “belief” versus valuing “people who believe”. Belief is always relative to a person: there is no belief without someone to do the believing. There is a question of whether they value belief just in the members of the school board (problematic for would-be secular policymakers), in employees (problematic for prospective atheist teachers like me), or in students (problematic for the significant minority of skeptical students). In any case, the statement publicly and officially discourages religious skepticism in the district.

  • vivian

    I live one county below them and they’re a big city compared to us. Anyway, we deal constatly with this, being such a small community. I went to my kindergartener’s classroom on Mon. and under the flag there is a small poster that says, “In God We Trust”. In a classroom for KINDERGARTNERS!!! They also have a bronze plaque of the 10 commandents in our middle/high school. I even had one of the moms refuse to talk to my daughters after she found out I’m an atheist. The sad part is, living in Ohio I expect this kind of behavior from people.

  • Why is it every time you link to these news articles that 99% of the comments in them are irrational nuts? Whats with newspaper comment sections that’s beings all these people together?

  • Sackbut

    @medussa:

    Starting the third line of the mission statement with “we value” and then a list definitely implies these are the traits they value in others, although it could also be interpreted as values they want to project outwardly, i.e. instill in others.

    Saying “we value respect” is saying that we consider it important to have respect for others. It is not saying anything about valuing people, one way or the other. It is not a statement that says “we value those people who exhibit certain characteristics, and we don’t value people who don’t exhibit those characteristics.” In fact, “we value our community” (later in the statement) could easily mean the exact opposite, that we value the members of our community, unconditionally, regardless of what characteristics they have.

    A statement of values is a statement of self, not of others. It says this is how we expect to conduct ourselves, what things we consider important in our actions, our dealings with other people. They wish members of the community to consider these things important.

    And if these are traits they wish to see in you

    It’s not. It’s traits they expect you to want to see in yourself.

    So again, I think the point is that someone who does not consider belief in God important would be out of step with the values statement. It’s inappropriate to expect that members of the community share a view that belief in God is important. However, it’s inaccurate to say that their statement has indication of what people they do or do not value (except possibly that they value all members of their community).

    Having items in a values statement is not the same thing as saying that we don’t value people who don’t sign on to the values statement. Imagine if there was a set of values for some club, saying “we value all members of society, regardless of their points of view.” Now suppose there was somebody who didn’t agree with that. Members of the club, by their own statement, would be expected to value that person; they wouldn’t say that he doesn’t subscribe to the set of values, and therefore isn’t valued.

  • cl

    “They’re saying they don’t value you unless you believe in a god,” [FFRF co-president Annie Laurie] Gaylor said. The statement vilifies nonbelievers, she contends.

    You know, for somebody who’s presumably an atheist and/or skeptic, FFRF co-president Annie Laurie sure shows a deficiency in validity here: that somebody values X in no way entails that they’ve villified those who don’t believe in X. Personally, I could think of plenty more important things to complain about.

  • ChameleonDave

    You know, for somebody who’s presumably an atheist and/or skeptic [sic], FFRF co-president Annie Laurie sure shows a deficiency in validity here: that somebody values X in no way entails that they’ve villified [sic] those who don’t believe in X.

    It is no doubt part of the meme in American culture according to which presenting oneself as a victim is desirable and a good way of getting things done. Why make a logical argument when you can say ‘I’m oppressed! I’m offended!’?

    Bearing this cultural background in mind, I don’t disagree with her statement. If they value peace, then they devalue the violent. If they value pale skin, they devalue the dark-skinned. If they value delusions about Jehovah, then they devalue the undeluded.

    It’s a pity that the meme requires it to be phrased that clumsy way, but she’s clearly in the right and they are clearly in the wrong.

  • Luther

    I do think it suggests that believing in God is favoring religion. It suggests that those who believe in God are somehow more valued than others. How would you act if you know your school had that value and you wanted good grades and recommendations to colleges?

    What if they said “We value those who believe in Allah”? Or “We value those who believe in gun control”? Or “We value those who believe in creation”?

    If I were a student, I would either get out of there or pretend to believe whatever they said was valuable.

  • theBlakKat

    Skeeto has a good point. You should check out some of those comments for kicks. Here’s my favorite:

    God forbid the children of any member of Freedom From Religion Foundation get sick one day…

    Who are they going to pray to?

    It’s even more (soberingly) hilarious if you’ve been keeping up with the latest rash of botched faith healings.

    To make matters worse, I grew up in the school district right next door to Lake, and all of my family members are local and adhere to the same ideas. Going home is like living in that comments list if I every utter a contrary idea.

  • cl

    ChameleonDave,

    I get what you’re trying to say, but I don’t think appealing to the “persecution complex” is the best way to go here, and I think your argument doesn’t hold up – for example – I value skateboarding, and by no means does such entail that I “devalue” non-skateboarders.

  • Luther

    cl,

    What if you said ‘I value white students” or “I value straight students” or “I value wealthy students”

    Would you say that in no way means you devalue black, gay, or poor students?

  • Annie

    Sooo…When anti-Christian or anti-belief in God groups want religious “freedom” what they really mean is they want religious freedom that alines with their personal beliefs. It says “belief in God AND religious freedom” even if it only said belief in God – so what? – don’t send your kids there! And by the way…seperation of church and state is a HUGE crock. By having the state intervene in “religous” matters, church and state are no longer seperated.