NEWS- Atheist camp: Teachers buck School Board policy

Some Albemarle teachers recently refused to hand out fliers they consider objectionable, and county school officials complain the controversy over the distribution of religious materials is cutting into instructional time.

The latest flier to fan the church/state flames touts Camp Quest, a residential camp for children of atheists, freethinkers, and humanists held in Ohio and Michigan, according to WorldNetDaily, a top conservative news site. 

"Do I have to send this out?" Diane Behrens says she asked the county attorney. Behrens, who decides what can go home in backpack mail, says she was advised that unless county policy limits distribution to local events, the schools had to send it home.

"That's why," she says, "we're going to revisit our policy on June 14."

It was much easier for her a year ago, when Albemarle prohibited distribution of material that was religious or political. But after a local parent was refused permission to send home a flier for vacation Bible school, the parent contacted the Christian Liberty Counsel, which reminded the Albemarle school district that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that if a school permits fliers about after-school events, it can't discriminate against religious fliers.

Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder, stands by that ruling, even if it means sending home atheist camp brochures. He sees it as a freedom of speech issue: parents are free to read the fliers– or throw them away.

"[Albemarle] can narrow those guidelines to a local event," says Staver. "They don't have to open it up to events in other states.... It should be a local opportunity."

Staver offers up his organization to help the county in crafting its policy.  "[Parents] need to know as much about Good News clubs as about soccer," he says.

"What concerns me the most is if they're going to have a policy that nonprofits can distribute, it's not up to individual teachers to decide," says Veronica Michaelsen, a local woman who put out a flier in December for a Pagan Yule celebration. 

"It bothers me teachers can decide not to distribute what doesn't agree with their personal religious beliefs," says Michaelsen, part of a group called NatureSpirit. "In a public school setting, teachers' personal beliefs shouldn't factor in how policy is enforced."

  The Hook was unable to reach any of the Albemarle teachers who allegedly refused to distribute the fliers. WorldNetDaily reporter Bob Unruh, who did not respond to a request for an interview, wrote that he was contacted by a representative of the dissident teachers, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

 "We would expect teachers to follow policy," says Albemarle School Board Chair Sue Friedman, who says she received several emails from out of state, and a half dozen from people locally. 

"There are many issues we need to revisit," says Friedman. "What is the best way of being a community partner and sharing information with families? One issue with this flier is the amount of principal and teacher time taken up in dealing with parents."

 While Camp Quest is not local, she compares it to the Boy Scouts: a national organization with a local connection.

Jefferson Park Baptist Church pastor Jeff Riddle wants to know who submitted the flier. "Is it," he asks, "a legitimate organization in the area?" Mary Ellen Sikes might think so.

Sikes, a founder of Central Virginia Secular Humanists, is a volunteer with Camp Quest "who happens to live in a county that allows fliers to be distributed," she explains. She says it took over a month to get the flier approved.

"We were very concerned about the delay and lack of information because we were very careful to meet School Board policy," says Sikes, noting that a disclaimer on the fliers clearly indicates that the county neither paid for nor endorses the flier but is sending it out as a community service. Sikes sees a need for the information about Camp Quest.

"Many freethought parents or parents of a secular world view are isolated and have no idea about resources about that sort of parenting, even though five to 15 percent of the population is nontheistic or secular on some level," she says. "There's a great public mistrust and fear of the nontheistic."

Indeed, despite the playful claim that the camp is "beyond belief," WorldNetDaily quotes the teacher's representative as saying, "I thought this was pretty offensive and pretty outrageous."

Given the percentages of atheists or secular thinkers in the general population, says Sikes, "Those teachers have at least one such child in their classes."

Amanda Metskas, president of the Camp Quest board, defends spreading the word about the Ohio and Michigan camps because children can fly there directly from Charlottesville.

"I don't know if public schools should be sending home fliers for outside organizations," says Metskas. "But if they can, it makes sense for us to take advantage of that opportunity. We have a small budget for promotion."

Pastor Riddle also wonders whether schools should be sending home fliers– but for another reason.

"These sorts of things indicate that if you send children to the public schools," he says, "you have to accept the radical secular mindset."