Local youth ministers and pastors can no longer visit students at lunchtime in Conway schools after an organization sent a letter in October complaining about the visits, school officials said Thursday.
About 16 representatives from area churches and religious organizations met in a closed-door meeting between them and superintendent Greg Murry on Thursday morning.
“A lot of things were circulating last night on Twitter and Facebook, and people were talking about ministers being banned from school,” said Conway K-Life board president Jeff Standridge. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now. (But) there is a suspension of these activities until they could complete the review.”
The issue stems from a Freedom From Religion Foundation letter dated Oct. 26. The Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for separation of state and church nationwide, sent Murry a letter saying there is a “constitutional violation in Conway Public Schools” in allowing youth ministers to visit students who are in their church.
The group received reports that a local pastor from New Life Church of Conway was “given access to students at Carl Stuart Middle School during school hours,” according to the letter.
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for Conway Public Schools to offer Christian ministers unique access to befriend and proselytize students during the school day on school property,” the letter said.
“This practice is especially concerning if it occurs on a regular basis. No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school. This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags.”
Carl Stuart Principal Harvey Benton referred questions to Murry.
The foundation has seen that a pastor will use the school to befriend students with the goal of spreading a gospel message and recruiting young church members, said foundation attorney Patrick Elliott, who wrote the letter.
In the letter, Elliott thanks the school for bringing resolution to another complaint against the district last year.
Elliott said the letter isn’t threatening. His group is informing the district it is in violation of the constitution and asks officials how they’re going to resolve it, he said. As long as it is going on, allowing ministers to visit students during lunch remains a liability for the school district, he said.
“We try to get things resolved informally the best we can and work with school officials on it,” Elliott said. “That’s not always the case. We have at least three lawsuits against schools now. Two are about the ten commandments, and one is about prayer at graduations.”
VISITING OR RECRUITING?
Standridge said his group was informed by letter several weeks ago that the lunchtime visits are suspended until the district reviewed its policy on the matter.
Murry said the school wants to make sure the practice is legal. The move to disallow visits from ministers at lunchtime is temporary, but the time to study the issue could take months, he said.
“We certainly want the community to know that we are wanting to make sure that whatever activities that are allowed at the school are legal for us to do and that’s really what all this is about,” Murry said. “We’re not trying to kick anybody out of the school, or an organization out of the school. Whatever we do, we have to make sure we are on the correct side of the law.”
According to Standridge, the meeting Thursday was to update and inform the group, but not to tell them they were allowed back on campuses.
K-Life director Anderson Wilkins said the school is not done crafting a policy that is “in the best interest of the students and families, and within the legal constraints that a public school is up against.”
Standridge said the group was told the school is seeking outside legal counsel to aid in the policy’s construction.
Wilkins said Conway K-Life has a long history of visiting Conway students at lunchtime. He said K-Life ministers will talk to other students about the ministry when asked, but said “The purpose is to maintain relationships with our students invested in our ministry and to go and be a positive influence during the school day.”
“To be clear, the purpose of these visits is not to recruit students to K-Life,” Standridge added. “My understanding (of) the purpose is to visit existing kids in the programs. The purpose is not to recruit kids into the programs.”
WHERE TO 'DRAW THE LINE'
Conway school district may be within its legal boundaries of separation of church and state, said board member Bill Clements.
“They are just supporting kids who go to their church,” Clements said. “They are not trying to recruit other kids.”
Under current school visitation policy, friends and family can come visit children at lunch. Grandparents often come for visits. Even Clements visited children during lunch while he was part of a group of dads who volunteer at elementary schools, he said.
“Where do you draw the line on who can visit kids at lunch?” Clements asked.
The school already mandates visitors passes and has a procedure in place for when and whom to allow lunchtime visits, Clements said.
The ministers all had parental consent to visit the schoolchildren, Murry said. No parent has complained about the visits either, he said.
Clements said he supports youth ministers visiting children who are already in their churches.
“I don’t have a problem with a friend coming in and visiting with friends or members of their church, but I wouldn’t want them coming in and preaching,” Clements said.
Freedom From Religion is overreacting, Clements said. The visits are not like a “revival” where people preach and recruit, he said. These are visits, he said.
“I get a little frustrated sometimes with organizations that believe we are allowing our kids to be brainwashed — that’s not the case,” Clements said.
The school will do whatever is “legally correct,” Murry said.
Based on a study the school is undertaking, Murry will make a recommendation to the school board, he said. No decision on any new policy was made at the meeting Thursday, he said.
“We’re going to do our homework. We’re going to study it very carefully,” Murry said.
Clements said the group complaining about the visits is trying to “browbeat” the school district. The foundation has complained in the past, he said. About two years ago, the school district stopped allowing The Gideons International, a group associated with Bible distribution, to pass out Bibles before school after an organization complained, Clements said.
In the letter, Elliott wrote: “We appreciate that you resolved a complaint regarding bible distribution in another Conway school last year. We ask for your prompt attention to this related concern.”
Clements said the group wants to take Bibles out of schools completely.
Murry said the decision not to allow the distribution of Bibles was based on legal advice.
With this issue, Clements said he feels comfortable with supporting youth ministers visiting schoolchildren. If the community feels strongly enough, and the school district is not breaking any law, he said he could see school officials allowing the issue to go to court.
Murry said he couldn’t speak to a possible lawsuit.
To view the letter, copy and paste this link:http://con-cdn.com/sites/default/files/Conway Public Schools AR-Pastor at lunch.pdf
Or view the jpgs of the letter.