The Christianity Epidemic in the Van Buren School District

If I were a parent in the Van Buren School District in Arkansas, I’d be worried about the education my kids were getting. Certain faculty members and administrators alike don’t know how to keep their religion to themselves when they’re on duty.

Check out what Van Buren High School Principal Becky Guthrie sent out to some of her staff members last month:

In a handwritten letter this month, Van Buren High School Principal Becky Guthrie asked 20 high school employees to become prayer warriors with her to resolve the crises at the school.

In the letter, Guthrie called the recipients her “brothers and sisters in Christ,” and noted that she’s never before written such a letter “and have certainly never sent one through school,” but felt a calling to do so at this time.

“We are under attack. God is moving in so many ways within our school. (A)nd Satan is angry,” Guthrie wrote.

She paraphrased a biblical passage in Philippians 4: “Let us stand firm in our God who will give us the peace that transcends all understanding and will guard our hearts and mind.”

She closed the letter by stating, “Our God is a strong and mighty God.”

What sort of awful leadership is that?! There are crises at the school and she thinks the best way to handle it is to give up all responsibility and action and throw it all in god’s hands?

She might as well go on the school’s intercom and say, “Students, you’re all fucked. We’ve given up on helping you.”

After the district’s superintendent, Merle Dickerson, heard about the incident, he downplayed it:

“It’s been handled as a personnel matter, and I don’t think it’ll happen again,” Dickerson said.

He said he made several phone calls and doesn’t think the principal’s disseminating such a letter to select staff at school was illegal although it may have been ill-advised. Dickerson said he did not consult the school district’s attorney.

Dickerson said he knows Guthrie didn’t intend to put her staff in an awkward position.

“She’s a good principal,” Dickerson said.

Good principals don’t break the law.

How is what she did not obviously illegal? It’s proselytization in the public schools. This is about as plain and simple as it gets.

You know he would’ve taken harsher action if the principal were a Muslim. A letter with the phrase “We are brothers and sisters in the eyes of Allah” would have been much more controversial, don’t you think?

It looks like all this Jesus-preaching is endemic in the district. And when a principal barely gets a slap on the wrist, it lets teachers know nothing will happen if they try it, too.

That must explain why a teacher in the same district, Central Middle School‘s Jan Redden, was caught doing something equally as illegal last week, when she sent home the following note with her students:

On April 21, a parent said, her son told her that before the students’ annual Benchmark exams the preceding week… Redden prayed “for the Devil to be bound up and not to enter their brains.”

“I no more want her leading my child in prayer than I would want someone from a different faith leading a meditation,” the parent said.

Damn right.

One other parent complained about it, too. The administration at the school took action, putting a stop to the “pretest prayer” and the personalized Christian Bible verses. Again, Superintendent Dickerson said “the matter was handled as a personnel issue.”

But, still, it looks like it was merely a slap on the wrist. It only gets worse when you hear what Dickerson said about it:

Dickerson said the district follows the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance regarding religious practices at public schools and will continue to do so. He said he is unaware of other such violations in the district.

Umm… another violation took place last month! Oh. Wait. Dickerson doesn’t think that was really a violation.

“I think there are gray areas surrounding the idea of when a professional is acting in his official capacity and when he is not, and that’s crucial,” Dickerson said. “And in the (classroom case), this was with students, and guidance was much more clear.”

If the principal sent a Jesus-y handwritten letter to staff members while on duty — which she openly admits to doing — she was acting in an official capacity and that shouldn’t be condoned.

How much more blatant do these staff members have to be before it’s clear they care more about preaching than teaching?

I don’t know why parents haven’t filed a lawsuit against this district; it looks like it’d be an easy victory. The superintendent is sticking his fingers in his ears when the law is broken and he’s not taking any significant action to put a stop to it.

I suspect it won’t be long before we hear about another church/state violation in the same district.

(Thanks to Donald for the link)

  • http://yamipirogoeth.blogspot.com/ Sakura

    I’d be demanding that the principal be fired and the suggesting that the superintendent retire before he gets into the same predicament if I had a child in that school/district

  • marc oberholtzer

    That’s why I don;t live in the bible belt. Too many pychopaths running around babbling about 2000 year old jewish zombi for my liking. they should fire that teacher,but considering it’s the south they’ll just promote her.

  • Thaddeus

    When I was in junior high I had a similar experience. My social studies teacher was Jewish, and when we reached Mesopotamia, Babylon and ancient Egypt, the real teaching stopped, and she made us have a Passover in class, replete with learning old Jewish songs and the dradel game. She also gave us a Channukah party. Upon hearing my complaint, my dad went down to school and raised hell (no pun intended). The principal ordered her to only teach from the book, and any further attempted proselityzing would bring disciplinary action upon her.

  • http://mamamara.wordpress.com Mara

    @Thaddeus: That’s weird. Jews are actually forbidden to proselytize to non-Jews. It’s one of my favorite things about Judaism!

    So she obviously knew less about Judaism than she thought. ::snort::

  • Luther

    I was wondering what the crisis in the school was that initiated all this. Are the students not learning? Did someone mention the E…….n word in science class?

    The letter explains them:

    The crises she cited in the letter were of a personal nature and apparently referred to staff issues – cancer, surgeries, discouraged spirits and personal struggles.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    It sounds like Becky Guthrie is really more qualified to lead a Youth Ministry at a local Southern Baptist church. Or perhaps the bible Sunday School at the church. She seems to be confusing what is common practice and language within the church community with public education in a pluralistic society. I hope she ends up in a leadership role better suited to how she likes to communicate. IMO, she should resign from her post and look for employment within a church.

  • Mr Ed

    “Our God…

    If there is only one god why do fundies make the our god distinction, polytheist.

  • Justin

    Is there any indication that if such things continue to happen the school district will be facing legal issues? The story seemed to explain everything that’s been happening but does not seem to give any idea on a strong push to get this stuff stopped.

  • VorJack

    It sounds like Becky Guthrie is really more qualified to lead a Youth Ministry at a local Southern Baptist church.

    Actually, the phrase “prayer warriors” and the whole tone of her comments make me think that she’s a pentecostal. Or even neo-pentecostal; part of the Third Wave.

    That could be a problem. Some of those folks are scary.

  • Randy

    I have to say I’m glad I never ran into this while attending high school in Georgia. Evolution was taught with no added drama and things were as peaceful as you could get in a school of 5,000.

  • Larry Meredith

    the middle school issue sounded far worse to me than Guthrie.

    Guthrie didn’t send that letter out to any students, and it didn’t sound like she was trying to convert anyone. She wasn’t disputing anyone’s beliefs or asking anyone to change their beliefs. How is that proselytizing? I’m not condoning it at all, I just think that part is exaggerating how bad it was.

    The thing being presented to students and sent to parents of the middle school was far worse, and actually really was proselytizing. Jan Redden is the one that really needs to get fired of the 2.

  • JoeBuddha

    You might want to read the response (by gsavonarola posted at 12:12 am on Thu, Apr 28, 2011) in the comments over there; awesome rebuttal.

  • Blacksheep

    You might want to read the response (by gsavonarola posted at 12:12 am on Thu, Apr 28, 2011) in the comments over there; awesome rebuttal

    Over where?

  • http://thirdworldnetwork.org Gwydion Frost

    If we replaced the word God with Satan, and used Anton LaVey quotes, the offending officials wouldn’t even have time to clear out their desks. Since they are a majority religion, however, its okay…

    NOT.

  • Randy

    I just read the comments found on the links in the article and they were more chilling than the article.

  • JoeBuddha

    First comment on the Becky Guthrie link above (Comments) is great.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    “Satan is angry,” Guthrie wrote.

    Redden prayed “for the Devil to be bound up and not to enter their brains.”

    What on earth is happening in Arkansas? You have teachers and principals going on about devils? This is not only shocking, but frighteningly bizarre. I can’t even imagine an environment where that type of language would be acceptable. Sure, in California you occasionally hear God-talk, but you don’t hear people spouting off about Satan.

  • http://scaryreasoner.wordpress.com SteveC

    I went to 6th 7th and 8th grade back in the early ’80s in Searcy County, one county over from Van Buren County. In 6th grade, every Wednesday morning, they’d bring in these two ladies to teach us from the Bible. Not kidding. I vaguely remember being taught about Esau and Jacob, and about the weird animal husbandry stuff in the Bible. At some point during 6th grade, that stopped, as apparently someone had complained (wasn’t my parents, I don’t think.) I thought it was weird as hell, and knew it wasn’t right, but being a sixth grader, I didn’t want to make any big fuss, and so just sat through it. That area of the state is thoroughly saturated with a ridiculous kind of Christianity (as if there were any other kind.) It is a pretty remote and very backwoods area of the state.

    I can remember recently going back to that place during thanksgiving time, and some of our friends there prayed that we’d have a safe trip back, which is not that unusual, but the way they expressed it was “let the blood of Jesus pour down upon them and protect them in their journey,” or some equally ridiculous and graphic way of putting it.

    Edit: I’m thinking Van Buren Arkansas (the town) and Van Buren County, Arkansas are not synonymous, so my 6th grade experience was not quite a proximate as I had at first thought.

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    if i ever have a child to educate, believe me when i say s/he will be homeschooled. that much i can do well, at least.

    what amuses me is how the administrators can’t even imagine a world without “gawd” or that there are people who don’t believe in it. “we have both kinds here, Catholic and Lutheran!” is the tone i pick up from those quotes. sorry, ignorant orthodox folks, but there are whole other religions out there and they have totally different mythologies than yours. it’s a big world, learn about it.

  • Miles

    I’ve always considered proselytizing to involve an attempt to convince people to believe what you believe or to join your group.

    Maybe I’m being thick, but I don’t quite see how a religious themed celebration like an invitation to a prayer circle rises to the level of proselytizing unless school time was used to conduct the ritual or students were pressured into it by their teachers. Merely having one doesn’t seem like a violation of church and state.

    In a perfect world, I’d love there to be more freedom of speech in our public schools, not less. Wouldn’t it be great if our teachers could speak freely for or against Christianity when the topic comes up in our schools? I wonder how many here would cry foul if an atheist got fired for telling a science class that faith isn’t evidence and you need evidence to determine the truth about reality in response to a question about creationism being justified by the bible.

    Surely the response to a letter calling employees to prayer in hard times is to write letter in reply calling employees to ignore religious differences and to donate to the red cross or organize a fundraiser for the unfortunate victim of cancer – maybe with a little jab like “You know, actually do something.”

  • http://namelesscynic.blogspot.com Nameless Cynic

    Are “education” and “Arkansas” mutually exclusive terms?

  • http://www.stardestroyer.net/Mike Michael Wong

    In my years I’ve learned one thing about Christians: the scary ones are not the ones who talk about God all the time. The scary ones are the ones who talk about Satan. The ones who feel that he’s real, and he’s a tangible enemy in our midst, and that we have to rise up and fight him. They’re the ones who will do whatever it takes to defeat this “enemy”.

  • Miles

    Anna,

    As an Arkansas atheist, I apologize on behalf of my state. There are sane people here, we’re just outnumbered by a homogeneous religious population. Wikipedia says Arkansans are 78% Protestant, 7% Catholic, and 14% non-religious. There’s almost nobody else here; at least in the rest of the country the theists are divided.

  • Justin Miyundees

    I suspect this type of thing is rampant especially in the southern U.S. One day my son bowed his head at the dinner table and began to mumble “God is great, God is goo…”.
    I asked him where he learned it and he said “Miss P taught us at school. You have to say it before you can go to lunch.”
    “Oh honey, you don’t HAVE to say it, you can just do that if you WANT to.”
    “No! You HAVE to say it or you don’t get your lunch.”

    I’d have complained if I’d have liked a cross burning on my front yard.

    I now homeshool my kids.

    Amazing how divisive “under god” has been to this “one nation indivisible”. They trample our sensibilities with impunity.

  • Rich Wilson

    @Blacksheep
    http://www.swtimes.com/news/article_a72b69c0-6a89-11e0-991b-001cc4c002e0.html#user-comment-area

    In light of the other comments, it is very good. There’s a lot of “she only sent it to fellow Christians” going on.

  • Randy

    I will “defend” Arkansas when it come to education. They sit at 32nd in the last comparison I read. Not the best, but they could be Arizona (50th).

  • Natalie Sera

    When I was teaching high school, one day in late December, a candy cane with the tag “Jesus loves you” showed up in my mailbox. I took it to the principal and told him it was offensive and he just looked at me and said something to the effect that it was just an innocent good wish. Huh? If that isn’t proselytization, what is? Or is it just willful denial of the fact of religious (and non-religious) diversity in the US?

  • Miles

    Protestants are the largest religious group in America, but in few places do they have a theological majority, much less a super-duper majority.

    The difference between a nonreligious person and an atheist is that the former may be practicing the latter’s lifestyle but won’t admit it to a pollster or to themselves, much less to their friends. In other words, we can effectively discount the nonreligious in the public court of ideas. When you do this, Arkansas is over 90% Protestant, and over 60% Evangelical at that, with no competition but a few Catholics. Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, JWs, and Orthodox Christians together are less than 1% of the population with a committed view.

    Few Americans outside the Bible Belt understand what happens when religion becomes truly homogeneous. There is less will and even less point in protecting an invisible minority. Besides, the minority is wrong, duh, or haven’t you read your scripture? Minority ideologies cease to shout as loudly, while the dominant religion becomes much more vocal without any pushback from other theologies. Before you know it people simply don’t talk about religion unless they are evangelicals, and that becomes the cultural norm.

    Jesus saves isn’t a religious statement in Arkansas, it’s just a true expression. Biblical interpretation is important as it holds secrets to how people should act in the world. Biblical arguments are secular arguments here, as the bible is obviously inerrant, dummy.

    If atheists don’t understand how Bible Belt evangelicals can think that freedom of religion means the freedom to suppress other religions and spread yours using state resources, it’s because those atheists don’t understand the power of homogeneity. Nobody challenges you.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Miles, wow, good insight. I hadn’t thought about it in quite that way before. It’s disconcerting to realize how homogeneous the population in some states is and how the lack of diversity affects separation of church and state.

    I wonder if the atmosphere in the Bible Belt is also due to your majority religion. Evangelicals make for a much different (and arguably less secular) atmosphere than mainline Protestants or Catholics, who put no focus on converting others and tend not to infuse every single moment of their lives with religion.

    Public school teachers praying for “the Devil to be bound up” or giving out “Jesus loves you” candy canes would never fly in the San Francisco Bay Area. I suppose it helps that only 41% of our county is affiliated with a religious congregation, and of those that are, 70% are Catholic. Evangelicals make up a mere 7% of our population.

  • idjit

    i went to a teachers meeting there weekly for a semester, during one meeting a sheet with 12 important pieces of knowledge or character the kids needed to know before leaving high school, one of the things was called the keys to life, each piece of knowledge or character had a symbol, the symbol for keys was the bible, if any one is interested, i believe i can find it and post it

  • psychokitten78

    “I don’t know why parents haven’t filed a lawsuit against this district; it looks like it’d be an easy victory.”

    If you ever lived anywhere near VB or Crawford County you’d understand why. You’d probably be laughed out of court and told you are going to hell for attempting to do such a thing.

    VB schools are awful for a whole host of reason and this particular type of thing has been going on for years. I remember teachers ganging up on students who were a little out of the norm, failing them and generally allowing severe bullying because they must be “satanic.”

    Oh and Mrs. Redden, she’s been a quack pot for years. I’m in my 30′s and had her as a new teacher coming in and she was absolutely loony toons 20 years ago. I’m sadly not shocked…and thankful my kids do not go anywhere near those schools.

  • http://templeofthehumanspirit.wordpress.com James

    I went to Van Buren High School. Once in the morning before school i destroyed my own bible and threw it in the trash. I was suspended for 3 days and the principle told me that i was “going to pay a terrible price.”


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