Glenwood Elementary admits mistake, apologizes for “I love Jesus because…”

American Atheists is proud to announce that Glenwood Elementary in the McDowell County (NC) School District, has apologized for the unconstitutional “I love Jesus because ___” controversy.

An article I wrote here on FtB last week sounded the alert, and the secular internet community reacted strongly. Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media support is often crucial to our success at American Atheists (I’m the Military Director at American Atheists).

Here are the results, for now.

Becky Pearson at McDowell County School District relayed the corrective actions taking place at Glenwood Elementary, as well as ‘their side’ of the story.

SGT Griffith,

Here is an account of what has transpired since Friday.

Glenwood Elementary has participated in Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child for the last 2 years.  This has been a great service project for students to participate in voluntarily and has allowed teachers to integrate geography lessons as students study maps to see various countries where the boxes are delivered as well as writing lessons where students may choose to write letters to children around the world who will receive the boxes. Principal, Amy Dowdle has worked closely with a volunteer from Samaritan’s Purse to create a service learning project that connects the children of Glenwood to less fortunate children from around the world.  She made sure that parents were informed of the school’s participation in the program and that individual student participation was completely voluntary.

The issue that has risen this year is that as part of the materials provided from Samaritan’s Purse included a “fill in the blank” letter for younger students K-2 that allowed them to simply fill in such information as their name and age instead of having to create an entire letter on their own.  One of the sentences in that letter was “I love Jesus because….”.   This letter was provided to younger students as a voluntary center activity .  No child was forced to participate or called out for answering or not answering any or all of the questions involved. Our local paper,  the McDowell News contacted  the Samaritan’s Purse volunteer via email Friday morning and said that they had received “some e-mails and one letter to the editor that students were given a questionnaire during this school event that asked them to list the reasons why they love Jesus.”   Ms. Smith immediately contacted Mrs.Dowdle.   Mrs. Dowdle was unaware that the form asked children to answer this question that was religious in nature.  She immediately  sent an email reply to our local paper and a Connect-Ed call to her parents and staff Friday night acknowledging the mistake, reassuring her parents and staff that she will carefully inspect materials to ensure that none of them contain matters that are religious in nature in the future and apologized for offending anyone.

On Monday, Mrs. Dowdle met with her faculty and staff and reiterated her stance on the issue.  Letters were also sent home with all students.  Mrs. Dowdle also participated in an interview with our local paper and Asheville TV station, WLOS.

Please let me know if you need any further information.

Thank you,

Becky

Becky Pearson

Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services

McDowell County Schools

It’s encouraging to know that so many of you actually followed through on my requests to contact the Superintendent of the school district, as well as the media outlets. For the most part, it worked. It generated awareness and real-world change.

But it was only a first step. Operation Christmas Child as a whole, needs to go.

As Operation Christmas Child freely admits on their FAQ:

Q. WHAT IS THE MISSION OF OPERATION CHRISTMAS CHILD?

A. The mission of Operation Christmas Child is to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way to needy children around the world, and together with the local church worldwide, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Bibles are still included as a part of the boxes that OCC sends. Christian literature, and themes are still present in many of the objects that can be stuffed into the boxes.

So we still have some work to do.

My response to the McDowell County School District:

Mrs. Pearson,

Thank you for the update, and the written clarification. As per our conversation, I’m pleased to write about positive developments. Such a rapid rush to apologize for mistakes is most welcome. Admitting the inappropriate nature of this was a great start. Likewise, the promise to remove the form is fantastic.

Government institutions like the public school system must not promote religion over others (or over non-religion) – an issue central to the U.S. Constitution, and centuries of SCOTUS rulings. This may even violate the No Religious Tests Clause of the US Constitution, before you even get to the amendments (Article VI Para 3). But the goal of our outreach has not been to call for the rolling of heads. We just wanted it fixed. And this is a huge step forward.

I mentioned in our phone call that I wanted to print your updates to the situation. It is extremely well written, and I’d like to share it verbatim. You deserve to have this opportunity, and I thank you for providing such a succinct written account. The atheist community will appreciate this.

However, there needs to be a closer look at this Operation Christmas Child, as it most certainly has a singular purpose of converting children to Christianity (be it in this country or not). All of the videos associated with this effort (self-produced) brag about this being the point of the entire operation. This operation was designed for churches, and that’s exactly where it should stay. No part of this operation is acceptable, ‘I love Jesus because…’ form or not.

I understand the urge for damage control may want you to sugar coat that, but it’s true. Watch any of their videos, it’s an undeniable and inappropriate goal for a public school to endorse (optionally or not).

We understand that religious activities may be a part of students’ lives. But there is a huge difference between supporting a religious demographic, and supporting the growth of one over others. By definition, converting a child to Christianity involves removing a child from their previous religious affiliation. This has no place in government.

If you still think this program is acceptable for your school district, I just a few questions. Would you support such an effort from an atheist group? Packing boxes with toys and copies of atheist literature, etc… I’m hoping you say ‘no’ and that this causes you to also reconsider your position with the Christian membership drive that Mrs. Dowdle volunteers for – with your public school students.

And what about supporting other efforts from atheist groups, which were not focused on ‘de-converting’ children? (Perhaps, simply a group of atheists who donate toys and clothing with no atheist literature. Or a group of atheists wanting to do a 5k run that raises money for cancer research, etc.) The answer should be ‘yes’ here.

Very respectfully,

Justin Griffith

Military Director – American Atheists, Inc.

Fort Bragg, NC

This is not the first time that I’ve put out a request for help that was massively successful because of the public and legal pressure it generated. In the last year, I’ve learned that those two things are the only forces that work when the system is broken.

I’m proud of you, internet atheists. Crowd-sourced activism is like an effective Lorax, speaking for those who can’t.

How you can help (again)

If you want to help, you still can. You should let them know that a Christian membership drive is not appropriate for government-funded public schools. Respectfully express your outrage that more wasn’t done.

Contact the McDowell County School District, and raise your concerns.

Here are the email addresses and phone numbers:

Main Central Office Line: (828) 652-4535 (ext 125 or 0)

Main Central Office Fax: (828) 659-2238

McDowell County School District Superintendent Dr. Ira Trollinger:Ira.Trollinger@mcdowell.k12.nc.us

Local Newspaper needs to be tipped off as well: news@mcdowellnews.com and lhollified@mcdowellnews.com

If it helps, my wife has drawn the Lorax with meme-ready brilliance.

Be like this guy. It works. From now on, you’ll see the rage Lorax on my pleas for support. Feel free to ‘steal’ it.

While our legal and fundraising teams mull over the prospects of suing to get this entire Operation dropped from the public school agenda, perhaps they will see the light.

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About Justin Griffith
  • Paddy

    Nice, Justin, one bite at a time…

    I wonder if there will be parents pushing back on you, something about trampling on a good program simply because it has some religious affiliation…and freedom of religion, blah, blah, blah.

    It IS North carolina after all.

    Keep up the good work. Internet atheists like myself need your alerts as we muddle through mundane jobs and such, as we can’t always pay attention.

    It’s appreciated.

  • Bill S.

    While this violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, it in no way violates the No Religious Test Clause.

    • Justin Griffith

      Perhaps it would be a bit better to rephrase it like:

      “This superficially comes close to violating the No Religious Tests clause…”

      Thanks.

  • http://www.FederalCrimesDefender.com David Kaloyanides

    Wish I could post the entire email I just sent to the district and the local papers. Similar issue in California with a religious organization promoting its Released Time Christian education at the school. Got it stopped from being distributed to the children directly, but under Ninth Circuit precedent, the district believes it must allow the organization to “make its information available” at the school.

    Still working on that one.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/lousycanuck/ Jason Thibeault

    Rage Lorax is one meme that deserves to get forced.

  • palefury

    I like the idea of a program where school children send care packages overseas to those less fortunate than themselves. I hope that the school district finds a way to continue a similar program without the religious agenda.

    It is absolutely correct to protest this blatant breach of separation of church and state, but I do hope that it doesn’t discourage the school and school district from involving pupils in charitable activities.

    Does anyone know if there is a charity that does similar work without a christian/christmas agenda/bias? Also surely it is all year round, not just “the holiday season” that such programs are needed?

    • Justin Griffith

      Toys for Tots is a lot more respectful in their approach – though not 100% secular. MRFF has worked with them before for various toy drives, so you know they are legit.

      I’m putting in a feeler with Foundation Beyond Belief to see if Dale McGowan and Hemant Mehta have any ideas.

    • sc_1bf428ff300c091d49168f1975ddff7c

      Seems my post didn’t go through.

      In my email to them, I suggested a couple of different connect to other cultures groups run by teachers using skype, e-mail, and blogs as well as mailing packages. If they actually want their students to have positive contact with other cultures around the world in 80 schools is a fun way to connect. For helping other schools there is kids to kids (kidstokid.org) I’ve tried to work with Around the World in 80 Schools but our filters caused a problem. That is supposed to be fixed this year. I’ve heard good things about kidstokids.org, but have not worked with them.

      My students go hungry every weekend and when school is out. So at my school we have been working with local ending childhood hunger groups to help our own students. I’m sure things will be easier now that pizza is a vegetable.

  • http://larianlequella.com larianlequella

    I think an even more pointed question to ask is if they would support a Muslim Organization that has similar goals as this Operation Xmas Child thing… Or a Hindu one, or a Wiccan one. It’s no coincidence that people who do this sort of thing are adherents of religious groups whose doctrines or standards would be the ones enforced by the state or school.

    Since they already voluntarily accept these doctrines or standards, they don’t expect to experience any conflicts with state enforcement or endorsement. What we have, then, is a failure of moral imagination: these people are unable to really imagine themselves in the shoes of religious minorities who don’t voluntarily accept these doctrines or standards and, hence, experience an infringement on their religious liberties through state enforcement or endorsement.

    That, or they simply don’t care what religious minorities experience because they think they have the One True Religion. And maybe that’s their point?

    • Justin Griffith

      ‘Christian privilege’ is a huge part of this problem, as you say.

      When I first started organizing the RBB festival (coming up soon!) there were swirls of “we should do this or that”. I often heard “let’s get the muslims, wiccans, etc… to do one too!”

      I said “Shit, let’s get one every day from a different religion. Turn that shit into Height Ashbury 1967 – with just as many people spouting nonsense about ‘spiritual this and spiritual that’.”

      All in all, we did end up attempting to establish contact with these strange bed fellows. No response, no matter how formal and polite.

      It seems that the only thing that makes the pendulum swing back in the direction of constitutionality is the rare atheist lorax.

      • Steve

        It’s sometimes interesting that hatred of atheists, gay people or other minorities is often the only thing that can really unite religious groups that would shun, hate and even kill each other in different circumstances

    • Makoto

      I was about to post something similar. Many religious folk have a distaste for atheists. Many people (unfortunately, it seems especially in the US) have islamophobia, so it’s a stronger reaction, and may help them think about it more clearly.

      Or, in the case of my father – say “of course it’d be okay” to that, then mutter about “one good bomb to take them all out” during one of the Islamic cultural observances. Can’t win them all, but I try to bring up his cognitive dissonance when I can.

  • Len

    Good news – congrats. It’s a start :-)

    One comment about the lesser-spotted atheist lorax: why does he look so much like a crazy, wild-eyed, fundagelical, spouting hate and anger? Granted, that may be what atheists feel after bashing our head against ingrained christian (or other religious) privilege for the umpteenth time, but still – we should be the calm, critically thinking, rationally minded ones not losing it because of the apparent stupidity of believers (or non-thinkers – ie, people who just didn’t think that something would be offensive).

    Can we get some more intelligent-looking lorax pics? It might make the recipients’ response more thoughtful, rather than a knee-jerk reaction about atheists being Satan worshiping baby eaters, etc.

  • borealis

    Hi Justin

    I appreciate your blog posts and the issues you bring to our notice.

    I hope you and your wife don’t mind my bringing up a problem you may not have considered. The Lorax is a Dr. Seuss creation, and while your use of it is cute and creative, you are in fact using someone else’s creative effort for your own ends, and are even possibly, by trying to make the Lorax image a commonly used theme here, placing yourself in danger of breach of copyright laws. You wouldn’t be the first to run afoul of the Seuss copyright team -

    http://www.salon.com/writer/dan_brekke/

    I’m sure your talented wife could come up with an original character.

  • carolw

    At my workplace we are trying to decide on a charity for our annual holiday fundraiser, and Operation Christmas Child was one that was suggested. We’ve sent the shoeboxes in the past, and I didn’t participate because of the goddishness. I’m hoping one of the local charities that was suggested is chosen instead.

  • scenario

    The idea is a good one. The school should find a secular organization to work with.

    I wonder what would have happened to a kid who answered I love Jesus because he never existed. Or because he’s so silly.

  • KG

    I’m the Military Director at American Atheists – Justin Griffith

    Wow! I didn’t realise American Atheists had an armed wing! No wonder the school backed down ;-)

  • scifi

    @KG

    DON”T SAY THAT!!

    You KNOW the nutters will quote-mine it as proof that we are all “MILITANT ATHEISTS!!!!!”"

  • Lurker111

    I think the Bart Simpson approach to megaphones applies here.

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