Buncombe’s Bible Battle: Time For Change At A N.C. Public School

Just because your faith happens to have numerical superiority doesn’t give you the right to use a public institution to impose it on others.

Change can be difficult, but it’s often necessary. Just because you’ve been doing something for a long time doesn’t mean you should keep on doing it – especially if what you are doing isn’t legal.

Public education officials in Buncombe County, N.C., are learning this hard lesson right now. The community is ensnared in a flap over the role of religion in its schools. Officials are crafting new policies, and we hope they do the right thing.

It all started when Ginger Strivelli, whose son attends North Windy Ridge Elementary School, contacted the school after the boy came home with a Bible in December. Strivelli’s son explained that the Gideons had come by and dropped off the Bibles, which were made available to students.

When Strivelli called the school to find out what was going on, she was told that other religious groups would be given the same access. She decided to call the school’s bluff and showed up with several copies of a book about Paganism.

School officials weren’t so eager to distribute that. (What a surprise!) They told Strivelli that a new policy on religion was being drafted.

The school board met recently to discuss the matter, and Strivelli was there. The gutsy mom didn’t hesitate to tell board members that they need to stop promoting religion. She pointed out that other parents objected to the Gideon Bibles but were reluctant to speak out publicly.

“I am the only one who is courageous enough to stand up to your bullying,” she said. “Many pastors have come up here and read scripture. This is not a church. Look around you; this is a public school board meeting.”

The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that the proposed policy says that school employees, school officials and volunteers “while acting in their official capacities shall not use their positions to endorse, promote, or disparage a particular religious belief, viewpoint or practice.”

It also requires the superintendent to provide regular training to staff and also encourages principals to consult with the superintendent “if they believe that a school-sponsored activity raises a question” of church-state separation.

AU’s Legal Department weighed in on this matter last month and warned education officials that the district's policy on literature distribution was problematic, so we’re glad to see the board take this seriously. The new policy sounds like a good start.

Alas, not everyone is on board. A local pastor, H.D. Scoggins, groused, “That is what brings us here tonight, the tyranny of a few seeking to force its will on the majority.”

And James Ponder, a Baptist minister, insisted that the Gideons should be allowed into the schools, asserting, “We need to make sure [students] have truth.”

Here’s what Pastors Scoggins, Ponder and those who think like them just don’t get: Your truth is someone else’s falsehood. Worse than that, it might even be their heresy. The Bible, which you regard as inerrant and infallible, is to others a mix of moral teaching and metaphors. To still others it’s a collection of fables.

Despite these differences, we all need to get along. One way we do that it by not using government-run institutions – like public schools – to force any religion onto young people. We leave the decision about what religion – if any – to expose children to up to their parents.

Here’s something else the pastors and their pals don’t get: When it comes to religion, the majority does not rule. Just because your faith happens to have numerical superiority doesn’t give you the right to use a public institution to impose it on others. The Bill of Rights puts our core freedoms beyond the reach of the majority.

This is basic stuff, but it seems that even after 221 years, some people still don’t get it.

An ally of Strivelli’s did some live tweeting from the board meeting. Her tweets show that many people in the community are among those who just don’t get it.

Members of the Buncombe County Board of Education have a chance to say they do get it. Here’s hoping that they don’t screw it up.