Law & Courts

Southern Baptists Urge School Board Activism, Off-Campus Bible Study

By Jessica L. Tonn — June 16, 2006 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 3 min read
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Corrected: This story originally misstated the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is based in Nashville, Tenn.

The Southern Baptist Convention has again sidestepped a controversial proposal urging its members to pull their children from public schools, but overwhelmingly adopted two milder resolutions relating to public education in the final hours of its annual meeting.

The first of those calls on school boards to adopt policies that would allow students to leave school for Bible classes during the school day.

In the other resolution, the gathering targeted “the direction of the public school system” by urging Southern Baptist churches nationwide to solicit members to run for school board seats and exert “their godly influence” on school districts.

Resolutions adopted by the group serve as recommendations and are nonbinding. About 12,000 Southern Baptists attended the meeting, which was held June 13-14 in Greensboro, N.C.

Kenyn M. Cureton, a spokesman for the Nashville, Tenn.-based SBC, referred to the two resolutions on schools as “engagement strategies” for addressing public education.

For the third consecutive year, the group’s resolution committee declined to send to the full gathering a more drastic “exit strategy” calling for the withdrawal of Southern Baptist children from public schools, he said. (“Southern Baptists Decline to Take Up Call for Public School Exodus,” June 23, 2004.)

The Southern Baptist Convention, with 16 million members, is the nation’s largest Baptist body. Though concentrated in the South, it has a presence throughout the United States.

Constitutional Rights

The two education resolutions approved on June 14 point to the constitutional rights of the group’s members as both a reason and a means for change.

According to the first resolution, “some states and school districts do not recognize and accommodate those parents who desire their children to participate in off-campus biblical instruction.”

The document notes that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1952 decision in Zorach v. Clauson, ruled that releasing students from school to attend religious classes is constitutional. Just four years earlier, in McCollum v. Board of Education, the high court had struck down an Illinois district’s release-time plan, in which children took religion classes at their schools during the school day.

Despite the Zorach ruling, a spokesman for a leading advocacy group for strict separation of church and state said he doubts school districts will be quick to embrace the release-time policies urged by the Southern Baptists.

Robert Boston of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State said that “the social and academic atmosphere is different now.” He speculated that if the Zorach case had come up even a decade later, in the 1960s, the practice of release time might not have passed muster with the Supreme Court.

Some districts, already have policies providing for the release of students for religious study, Mr. Boston said. But, he added, most districts are reluctant to approve such policies because they would cut into instructional time and would pose logistical problems, such as what to do with the students who do not leave school.

“The Baptists are barking up the wrong tree,” he said.

‘Wishful Thinking’

In encouraging Southern Baptists to run for school board seats, the other resolution refers to the high-profile battle over the Dover, Pa., school board’s policy that called for citing “intelligent design” as an alternative to the theory of evolution in biology class. That policy was overturned in a federal court case last year.

“In December 2005, a federal judge ruled in favor of government schools indoctrinating children with dogmatic Darwinism,” the resolution says.

The resolution also argues that schools continue to adopt “policies teaching that the homosexual lifestyle is acceptable.”

The Dover controversy could serve as a warning, rather than a call to action, for prospective school board members, however

Mr. Boston noted that local residents had voted out of office all eight board members who had voiced support for the policy on exposure to intelligent design—the belief that life on Earth is so complex that a divine hand must have played a role in its creation—after drawing intense criticism and media scrutiny to the 3,600-student district. (“Evolution Loses and Wins, All in One Day,” Nov. 16, 2005.)

Bruce N. Shortt, the Houston lawyer who co-sponsored the proposed exit-strategy resolution also questions the strategy behind the education resolutions. He said the effort they envision “reflects reformist wishful thinking.”

The education system is “unreformable,” he contended, because of government-mandated school curricula, court rulings, and special-interest groups.

His solution: “We need to send our adults in and take our children out.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Southern Baptists Urge School Board Activism, Off-Campus Bible Study


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