Christian gathering at school questioned

25 May 2001


Christian gathering at school questioned

A Fellowship of Christian Athletes holiday meeting at Inverness Middle raises questions. School officials defend allowing it.


St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000

INVERNESS -- Questions concerning the propriety of religious activity in school surfaced Thursday at Inverness Middle.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Inverness Middle usually meets before school on Tuesdays. But this week, the meeting was slated to begin before school Thursday, the same day the student-based club was staging its annual Christmas gathering.

Students who attended the before-school session were allowed to obtain passes and go to the gathering, which was held during school hours. All students not attending the party were required to attend classes, according to principal Cindy Staten.

School Board member Carol Snyder said she heard from people who were concerned that students were being pressured into a particular religious

perspective through the activity and she questioned whether everyone there was there for that reason. At one point, adult ministers who work with students urged students to stand up and declare their Christian faith or face some eternal consequences.

"My main concern is that this is being done during class time," Snyder said. "There is peer pressure to believe this way when the students are not all Christians."

Snyder already has raised the ire of some local residents who have taken issue with her stand that the prayer recited at the beginning of board meetings should be generic instead of strictly Christian.

Among those leading the testimony Thursday was the head of the school's FCA chapter, Gene Himmel. His mother, Sam, is a School Board member.

Sam Himmel said she hadn't heard about the incident and told a reporter she planned to find out more.

School officials defended the event.

Staten pointed out that all the students attending the gathering should have been FCA members and been prepared for that sort of prayer and testimony offerings. She also noted that schools must provide access to any such groups that want to express themselves.

Staten said she didn't see a problem with the event being the only non-class-time activity going on at that time. Staten noted that schools throughout Citrus would allow similar activities if they, like Inverness

Middle, had finished exams earlier in the week.

"Look at the time of year this is," Staten said. "You're talking about Christmas vacation and a half-day."

As for Snyder, Staten had this to say: "She needs to take a look where she's living now. This community is very supportive of these kinds of activities."

Superintendent David Hickey said he talked to Snyder about her concerns. He said he didn't think the school stepped outside federal guidelines that govern such activities. Such events are allowed before or after school or during special activity periods.

"On the surface, I don't see any mistakes. But if we had any mistakes, we'll correct them," Hickey said.

Snyder persisted. She said the episode highlighted the uselessness of half-days and showed a clear preference for the Christian way of thinking.

"Why don't they study all the religions across the world that have celebrations at this time of year instead of just Christmas," she said, noting that people just need to learn more sensitivity to other perspectives.

"I don't send my Jewish friends Christmas cards," Snyder said. "This just doesn't have a place in the school day."


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