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Schools open, but churches inactive

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DIANA BUCKLEY
Ellis County Press
WAXAHACHIE — Maybe it's an over-reaction to the recent Supreme Court ruling against prayer before football games. Or perhaps it's due to a shift in focus from public to private or home education.

Whichever, churches seem to be largely inactive in Ellis County public schools.

In a phone survey of Waxahachie churches, only one reported was 'working on' an outreach program in the public schools. Another indicated a strong commitment to participation in Meet you at the Pole, but said its main outreach focus was to the community rather than the schools.

According to Kelly Shackleford of the Free Market Foundation, response to the recent prayer ruling may have something to do with it. '(Some districts) totally over react and (prohibit) all kinds of things that are unconstitutional, that students can do and could not be interfered with,' Shackleford said. 'We put up a letter on the web site that people were giving to administrators (about) not over-reacting to the football decision.' The Free Market Foundation is an organization that provides funding for litigation involving religious freedom, sanctity of life, and family values. In a current case, Shackleford is representing Greenville teacher Karen Barrow.

'Ms. Barrow waited patiently for 10 years with her principal's certificate,' said Shackleford. 'A job came open for assistant principal. (The district) had a committee of faculty and administrators who unanimously said she was the best choice. She went to a meeting with the superintendent and he said, ‘Congratulations, you've been chosen. You've got the job as long as you'll take your children out of private school.''

Shackleford said Barrow refused to move her children from the school they were attending, and the superintendent responded she would never be promoted in the district as long as her children were in private school.

'You can't do that,' Shackleford continued. 'Parents have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing and education of their children. You can't have somebody tell any citizen what they are supposed to do with their children and their upbringing.'

Shackleford emphasizes Christians should remember and exercise their right to religious freedom, even in the public schools. 

'(The school administrator's) job is to be neutral, not to push and not to inhibit - stay out of the way,' he said. 'Simply put, from the student's standpoint, students have a right to initiate any religious activity they want as long as it does not cause a material and substantial disruption to the classroom.'

Churches may be over-reacting as well, choosing not to initiate activities in public schools that may be deemed inappropriate in the current political climate. Instead, many churches have chosen to focus their energies on private schools, and others support large contingents of home-schooling families.

But in this area at least, public schools seem receptive to the Christian influence.

Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a national organization that seeks to teach students how to bring others to know Christ through athletics, has active chapters in Red Oak, Ferris, Waxahachie, and Rice to name a few. Coach Tal Sanders, who sponsors the group in Ferris, says he has encountered a supportive atmosphere in the district.

Sanders also holds a coach's outreach Bible study in his office on campus, which generally has two to six participants.

'It's to support the coaches in what they do,' Sanders said. 'Coaches have one of the biggest influences on kids.'

Sanders said First Baptist Church of Ferris had been holding regular prayer and Bible Study groups in the cafeteria last year.

'I haven't noticed them this year,' he said, 'but that doesn't mean they aren't just doing it in another area.'

Students at Red Oak High School also hold independent prayer meetings on campus. 'Some students meet together to pray before they go in to school in the morning,' said a Red Oak official.

Shackleford said Christians in the public schools should simply exercise their rights in a non-disruptive manner.

'Can they pass out invitations to religious meetings? Yes!' he said. 'Can they block the hallway to do it? No.

'Can they write a paper from a Christian perspective? Yes,' he said. 'Can they stand up in the middle of math class and recite the Lord's Prayer? No.'

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