Education

After backlash over Bible flier, Folsom Cordova district gets request to send atheist email

Flier for a “Freethought Day” event scheduled for Sunday at the state Capitol. The event is sponsored by the Secular Coalition for California, which represents nonreligious individuals. The Folsom Cordova Unified School District has been asked to send this flier to its 20,000 families.
Flier for a “Freethought Day” event scheduled for Sunday at the state Capitol. The event is sponsored by the Secular Coalition for California, which represents nonreligious individuals. The Folsom Cordova Unified School District has been asked to send this flier to its 20,000 families. Folsom Cordova Unified School District

The Folsom Cordova Unified School District, still coping with community reaction to an email it sent to 20,000 parents publicizing “Bring Your Bible to School Day,” is sending another email flier advertising a Sunday atheism event at the state Capitol.

The district has already distributed the announcement via its third-party email service, Peachjar. It invites participants to “Freethought Day,” an afternoon celebration of science, First Amendment and nonreligious rights on the Capitol’s south lawn.

Folsom Cordova Board President Teresa Stanley said that the district’s legal counsel, in advising that the second flier also be emailed, warned that the district may not disparage or discriminate against any one group. The mailer included a another disclaimer stating that the school district was not a sponsor of the program.

Trustees at a board meeting Thursday night expressed desire to revisit the policy, she said.

“I think staff understood we needed to review our policy again,” Stanley said. “I think last night, every board member expressed that it was worth looking at again.”

The Bible-to-school publicity that erupted earlier in this week “made us a target for other groups that want to see how far they can push us,” she said.

District spokesman Daniel Thigpen said the district on Friday emailed parents asking for feedback and outlining the uncertainty ahead.

“What happens next?” Thigpen wrote in the letter to parents. “Does FCUSD now have to approve any outside religious or nonreligious group’s request for flier distribution? That’s a difficult question because the answer is not clear cut – it depends on the message being presented.” He said the requests must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

The letter provides a Web link, www.fcusd.org/flyersurvey, to gather feedback.

Peachjar, nearing the end of a two-year contract with the district, sends email directly to parents and avoids the more cumbersome process of children bringing fliers home from schools. It can take 24 hours or more for an item to land in mailboxes via that service. Thigpen’s letter, by contrast, went out quickly to parents via a district-run email system.

Thigpen said he personally fielded about two dozen calls this week concerning the Bible flier. He called the matter “an emotional issue” and he said he participated in “some very good conversations. There was some confusion, understandably.”

Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum of the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Folsom sent an email to The Sacramento Bee observing that schools “should create an environment where students are encouraged to silently reflect on their purpose in life.” The prospect of an atheism flier didn’t alter his viewpoint, he said.

“The district agreed to send out the flier originally,” he said. “So they opened the door for sending out other fliers as well. They can’t pick and choose. If the atheist group thinks they have a solution for children that is a benefit to them, well, it’s a free world.

“I don’t have to agree with them. They definitely have the right to promote their perspective.”

The initial public outcry over distributing religious fliers came earlier this week when parents were invited to have their children observe “Bring Your Bible to School Day.” It quoted a verse from Matthew that said “Let your light shine.”

That event was sponsored by Focus on the 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 the event had no ties to campus activities and that no classroom instruction was altered to accommodate the day.

Novella Coleman, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said Thursday that the district likely violated the separation of church and state.

“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.”

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