By guest blogger, Kim Buehrer Earlier this month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote a complaint letter to school officials at the Manteca Unified School District in California. An anonymous student accused continuation high school teacher, John Alameda, of giving students “Bible cookies” as well as “using his official position to promote an after-school Bible club.” The internet lit up with headlines such as “Teacher accused of Promoting Religion in Class” and “California 'Bible Cookies' Teacher Under Investigation for Violating US Constitution.”
Fox40 in Stockton, California, interviewed Alex Luchenitser, the Associate Legal Director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and quoted Luchenitser as saying “The teacher should stop this unlawful proselytization (sic) and pushing of religion on, near vulnerable students… All this conduct of the teacher is a clear violation of the U.S. constitution.” Another news source interviewed a student for approximately ten minutes only to use a ten second portion of that interview taken out of context. That student tearfully approached Mr. Alameda, the accused teacher, the next day explaining how her words had been twisted.
The real problem is no one – including the newspaper that “broke” the story – talked with the teacher before they went to print or before his image was tarnished.
We were anxious to talk with Mr. Alameda to hear his side of the story.
“For the record, I have never offered any kind of extra credit for copying Bible verses, nor have I bribed students with Bible Cookies”, said Mr. Alameda. As it turns out, the “Bible Cookies” are simply store-bought cookies that Mr. Alameda’s wife donates to the school-authorized, student-led Christian club (for which he is the advisor/sponsor). The club meets on Fridays in Mr. Alameda’s classroom and leftover cookies stay in the room. On Mondays it has become routine that his students jokingly request any leftover “Bible cookies.”
That’s it. No cookies shaped like a Bible or topped with Bible verses and snuck into class. Just plain, simple cookies that Mr. Alameda’s students know are left over from the Friday Christian club meeting.
Well, Mr. Luchenitser, where exactly is the “clear violation of the U.S. constitution”? This teacher seems to know and abide by the appropriate boundaries saying “I understand school is a ‘captive audience’ and it is unfair for me to make unwilling students listen to discussions about faith and God. I am extremely sensitive about this, and I never ‘preach’ my personal faith to students in the classroom.” Students and teachers who are regularly in his classroom have attested to this. As for “using his position to promote an after-school Bible club,” Mr. Alameda explained that in the same way any teacher announces club meetings for which they are sponsors he has announced the Christian Club meetings (and just as much as other clubs he sponsors).
So, much ado about nothing.
During the media flurry Gateways to Better Education also reached out to Manteca school officials, as well as Mr. Alameda, and provided them with information on religious freedom in public schools and the U.S. Department of Education Guidelines. Because of the timing of the complaint, we took the opportunity to also let them know that Religious Freedom Day (January 16) was approaching and President Obama, as previous Presidents since 1993, would be making a Proclamation asking Americans to “commemorate this day with events and activities that teach us about this critical foundation of our Nation's liberty.”
As a result and to our delight, Monday through Thursday leading up to Friday’s Presidential proclamation every student heard quotes from past presidential proclamations celebrating religious freedom over the school’s public address system! John Alameda told me, “I’ve been the advisor of student Bible clubs for 20 years and I never knew about Religious Freedom Day or the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines on students’ religious liberties. Now that I know about them, it’s taken me to a whole new level of advising students regarding their freedom of expression.”
So, in the end, I’d say a little controversy resulted in a good week for Religious Freedom at New Vision High School.
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Kim Buehrer is Executive Vice President of Gateways to Better Education