On Thursday, news broke that Conway schools have decided to bar what they call “religious visitors” from their campuses. The ruling came after a Wisconsin group, Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed a complaint. Thus far, the school says they have received no complaints from actual parents in the district and all of the visiting pastors/ministers had parental consent to visit the students. Nonetheless, the school has proceeded with banning the visitors — which they call “temporary,” until they have time to gather more information — but the move seems to raise more constitutional questions than it answers.
The move by Conway schools is already garnering national news attention.
I spoke with Patrick Elliott of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He contends there is at least some misinformation being spread about this story:
“We’ve never said a youth pastor can never visit a school. There may be permissible visitations. No one can be barred because they’re a pastor.”
Elliott said he was unaware of whether or not parents had given these pastors/ministers consent to visit their children:
“I know none of the facts about parental consent. The superintendent is saying that. I don’t know how that works in practice. It’s not like you sent home 200 permission slips to all the parents…At least one parent said she observed pastors interacting with other students.”
“And I will say, parental consent isn’t necessarily the end of the question. Let’s say the school is conducting prayer observance day. The court has still found that unconstitutional even if parents have consented.”
I asked Elliott if it was fair for his group to say ministers were receiving “unique access” — couldn’t anyone receive permission from the school and/or parents and visit children during lunchtime?
“I think the unique access is a fair way to put it. This is a common practice in different school districts. I’m not in the lunch room or cafeteria so I don’t exactly know how this is being implemented. But other adults don’t come into a lunchroom and ask students to be involved in their activities. Other groups — Scientology, Wiccans — would not be given this access.”
“The school has an obligation to protect their students,” Elliott said.
When asked if FFRF would be opposed to Boy Scouts or Planned Parenthood representatives being given access to students, Elliott said:
“It’s obviously a state and church issue. We work to protect the separation of state and church. If someone with an outside agenda was meeting with students, I think parents would absolutely have a right to say we should stop this practice. I think it is an issue that it is a religious group.”
I also asked Elliott if he thinks pastors or ministers with children in school should be allowed to visit them during school hours:
“What we’re looking at is the specific context of what’s been going on. A parent visiting their student poses a different issue. Maybe the school would allow that. However, when it happens every week and they have another agenda, that’s a different issue. But I certainly think this is being judged on its particular facts. You have youth pastors coming into the school day and meeting with students. It’s not to say someone religious can’t visit the school, it’s the context of how it’s happening.”
Lastly, I asked if the group is opposed to pastors doing private counseling or visitations with students:
“We are not necessarily opposed to a pastor visiting with a student privately at school. But we’ve previously had issues with Ruth Doyle Middle School distributing bibles during the school day. We’ve heard from two other families about issues with this middle school.”
Elliott said their group does not necessarily take the position that all religious visitors should be banned from school grounds, but they do not believe they should be allowed to proselytize during school hours.
“These youth pastors should not be given carte blanche access to students and it’s been reported to us that some students that are being talked to aren’t necessarily in their [youth] groups.”
State Representative David Meeks, who represents the Conway area in the state House, passed along this statement in light of the original news reports:
“It is shameful that the Freedom From Religion Foundation asserts the falsehood that there is a constitutional principle of separation between church and state. There is not. This is just another example of our freedoms coming under attack. I disagree with the decision that was made to bar local youth ministers and pastors visiting students during lunch. I urge the superintendent to quickly craft a policy that would allow these positive role models access to students that may attend their church or where they have been given permission by a parent or guardian.”