3 May 2011

Arkansas teacher told to stop praying with students and posting or passing out Bible verses

Times Record   -   Arkansas & Oklahoma     April 29, 2011

School Ends Teacher’s Prayer Practice

By Mary L. Crider | TIMES RECORD

A Van Buren teacher prayed over her class, handed out individualized pocket Bible verses and posted Bible verses on her classroom wall, according to some parents.

On April 21, a parent said, her son told her that before the students' annual Benchmark exams the preceding week, Central Middle School teacher Jan Redden prayed "for the Devil to be bound up and not to enter their brains."

Although she is Christian herself, the parent said, she practices with a more ecumenical denomination than does the teacher.

"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.

Redden, who has landed several grants for innovative teaching programs, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Following another parent's complaint during the Benchmark exam period, district administrators handled the matter, stopping the pretest prayer as well as Redden's practice of giving the children personalized Christian Bible verses to carry in their pockets, Van Buren School Superintendent Merle Dickerson said Thursday.

The Bible verse postings on the classroom walls were confirmed Thursday by Dickerson and Central Middle School Principal Eddie Tipton during a conference with the teacher, and the posters were removed Thursday morning, Dickerson said.

A second parent photographed them during a school open house and voiced concerns about infringement on students' First Amendment civil rights regarding religion.

That parent provided the photos and documents to the Times Record, which in turn provided copies to district administrators, requesting comment.

The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ..."

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.

Individual prayer in a person's thoughts is permissible at any time, Dickerson said.

"A student or a teacher doesn't give up their constitutional right when they walk in the door. In my mind, that's never an issue. The issue is an individual acting in his official capacity in the organization, and it becomes an issue in how it is perceived at the moment. So how you clarify that is to be conservative and to be safe," Dickerson said.

"We aren't asking anyone to leave their faith on the steps as they come in. We do ask them to use good judgment and to consult guidance from the U.S. Department of Education," Dickerson said.

As for the teacher, the matter was handled as a personnel issue, the superintendent said.

A situation involving Van Buren High School Principal Becky Guthrie was different, Dickerson said.

Early in the school year, Guthrie distributed a letter to 20 staff members, whom she supervises, asking them to be prayer warriors with her. A principal's supervisory duties include recommending people for hiring, termination, promotion and the like.

A staff member who received the letter objected to the request being made of employees within the school environment.

"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."

Guthrie's letter was also handled as a personnel matter, Dickerson has said.

Asked how Van Buren teachers and administrators are advised of how federal and state law regarding religious expression applies within the school environment, Dickerson said there is good advice on the U.S. Department of Education website, and district administrators periodically pull it off the site and go over it with the principals of each of the district's schools.

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