An emailed flier had some parents questioning why the Folsom Cordova Unified School District would send information to their inboxes publicizing “bring your Bible to school day.”
The flier promoted Thursday as the day for students to bring their Bible to campus. It quoted a verse from Matthew that said “Let your light shine.” It also included a disclaimer that said the school district was not a sponsor of the program.
But some parents were furious that the district had allowed a religious entity to promote itself via the district email system. The flier was sent to about 20,000 email addresses in the district.
Ashley Slovak, whose daughter is in the first grade at Carl H. Sundahl Elementary, said she was incredulous when she read the email.
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“We’re raising our child in an interfaith household. We have a strong sense of faith in our house, but we would never bring that into the school institution,” Slovak said. “It’s unbelievable the district is supporting something that blurs the line between public education and religion.”
Daniel Thigpen, spokesman for the district, said that the district has a policy that allows the distribution of some fliers by email from organizations that want to publicize activities for students and families. But he said the district “tried to make clear to our staff and our families is that this is not a district- or school-sponsored event in any fashion.” He said no students were required to participate.
“Bring your Bible to school” is sponsored by Focus on Family, an evangelical Protestant organization headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo. The group said that choosing a special day “empowers students to take their Bibles to school as a visual way to celebrate religious freedom and share God’s hope with friends.”
Thigpen said when the request came in last week to advertise on behalf of the Focus on Family event, the district sought guidance from its legal counsel on the appropriateness of distributing the flier.
“At the recommendation of our attorneys, we distributed the flier because our legal counsel advised us that not doing so, given our practice of allowing outside groups to promote activities, could be potentially discriminatory,” Thigpen said.
But Slovak, who is Jewish, said she believes the event threatened to marginalize her daughter, who would not have brought a Bible to school, since the family is putting the emphasis at home on Judaism.
“It should be a safe place,” Slovak said. “She would feel ostracized. She would feel like an outsider among her peers.”
The email was sufficiently disturbing, she said, that the couple kept their daughter out of school on Thursday “in protest of what the district is doing.”
She said her husband, who is Christian, planned to complain directly to trustees at the Thursday night school board meeting.
“This can’t happen again,” Slovak said. “We will not allow this to happen again in our school district.”
Thigpen said he fielded more than a dozen calls about the flier from parents.
“Students have the First Amendment right to bring a Bible or other religious text to school in their backpack to show to their friends and talk to their friends – so long as it is not disrupting the learning environment or harming other students.”
Thigpen emphasized there were no activities planned around “bring your Bible to school day” and that teachers have not altered their instruction.
He said the district is walking a fine line between freedom of speech and separation of church and state.
Novella Coleman, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California who specializes in issues of religious freedom and separation of church and state, said the district likely crossed that line.
“There are ways government agencies can lend unlawful support to religious organizations,” Coleman said. “Here it sounds like the school district was promoting the event. Just adding a disclaimer doesn’t fix it.”