The Lodi Unified School District in California has been working with the local First Baptist Church for years now, in a partnership that ought to raise a lot of church/state separation eyebrows. The issues really came to light after the Stockton Area Atheists and Freethinkers filed public records requests from the District beginning in September of last year.
What the atheists discovered was really incredible.
1) The Vehicle
In 2004, the District bought a 35-foot Winnebago Adventurer, which they converted into a large mobile computer lab. That vehicle was sold in 2012 to the One-Eighty Teen Center — a program of the First Baptist Church — for a measly $4,500.
The blue book value of that vehicle today? Michael Fitzgerald of the Stockton Record found it to be “roughly between $28,700 to $34,550.”
So where did the school get the selling price from?
Was an appraisal done? Were other buyers allowed to bid?
District officials say the records of the RV transaction are lost.
But, they say, the value was established by Huisman Auctions of Galt.
Huisman’s President, David Huisman, disagrees. “We never appraised that vehicle,” Huisman said.
Looks like they gave the church a sweet deal while the taxpayers missed out on money that could’ve gone toward the students.
2) The Access
One-Eighty was allowed to visit multiple classrooms in multiple schools during the day to promote their summer program to students. While those school visits may have been secular, the whole point of the summer program — and One-Eighty in general — is to convert children to Christianity. (Or, as they phrase it, to help students with their “spiritual growth.”)
Fitzgerald explains how they’re not even subtle about this:
The teen center has a big picture of Jesus inside, a large cross and Bibles. It refers to its staffers as “missionaries.” Its founding Director Jake McGregor wrote, “The question I constantly asked in those early years was something like, “How can we get kids here, and how can we get them to meet Jesus here?”
3) The Counseling Program
One-Eighty provided several counselors to the District for a cost of $111,769 over three years. They helped 364 students over that time period. While the curriculum used for this program, known as “Why Try,” was purchased from a secular source, One-Eighty was allowed to modify it in ways that the District will not release publicly because they say that would violate a copyright agreement.
But get this: On the church’s own website, here’s how they explained the point of the mentoring program:
One of these ministries is the continuation of the Why Try: 180 program. Why Try: 180 is an evidence-based life skills program teaching at-risk students the value of trying at home and school. Lessons taught help with gang-prevention, depression, anxiety, fighting, and grade improvement.
This is the biggest year yet for the Why Try: 180 program—lead by Director Alison McGregor. Why Try: 180 has four professional and lay therapists facilitating 40 groups within nine Lodi Unified School District middle and high schools. By the end of the 2013-2014 school year, the facilitators will reach close to 400 students with this life-skills program.
The hope is that these students come to the teen center after going through the program and connect to a teen center mentor. Within the context of that relationship, students can hear the truth of Christ.
They’re right up front about it! This is all about bringing kids to Jesus. And they’re getting taxpayer money to do it.
Even if the church argues they’re merely trying to help and providing solid secular services to the students, their ultimate goal is to bring the students to Christ. They’re just doing it indirectly.
We often see this happen in a different way, with Christian speakers finding a backdoor approach to proselytizing that involves conducting assemblies for students. They might tell kids to stay away from drugs or gangs during the school day — which is fine — but they also invite those kids to an evening presentation (when they can bring their parents) that is explicitly religious. Administrators usually act like they had no idea that was happening, but it’s hardly a surprise.
When the two worlds are as intertwined as the Baptist Church is with the Lodi Unified School District, you have to wonder how incompetent these school leaders are that they didn’t put a stop to this a long time ago.
I asked Stockton Area Atheists and Freethinkers co-founder David Diskin what he made of these revelations and he told me the following:
It’s extremely disconcerting that a public school district could be this involved with a local church right under our nose. I encourage fellow atheists to look closely at their own schools and report violations to our national groups such as AHA, AU, and FFRF.
I’m still trying to discover the curriculum for which the school paid over $100,000. Allegedly, it has been modified to suit the mission of the church and has been presented to hundreds of students over the last three years.
I have further concerns that the church has integrated itself into the nearby Stockton Unified School District and may also be working with the county.
The District ought to cut its ties with First Baptist Church and its One-Eighty program immediately. There’s no shortage of secular groups that provide the same services. Why not work with them?
This is all disturbing, but because there’s no smoking gun that the church is actively proselytizing students, don’t expect a lawsuit in the near future. Not yet, anyway. But with this many problems already evident, it’s possible that we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
(Image via Shutterstock)