School’s involvement in Christian crusade breaches church-state separation, teen says

Friday, May 25, 2001

A Tennessee school system’s involvement with an annual religious crusade crumbles the wall of separation between church and state, a high school student and her mother say.

Tyla Tracy, a ninth-grader at Union County High School, says she feels ostracized when she doesn’t take part in the Area Wide Crusade that most of her classmates attend during school time.

“When I don’t participate, people ask me what religion I am, call me names and say I’m a witch,” Tyla said. “They ask me if I believe in God, and I don’t feel it’s any of their business.”

Gary Beeler, minister of Fairview Baptist Church in Luttrell, started the crusade in 1998. Each May the five-day gathering is held in Wilson Park, which borders Union County High School in Maynardville.

The school board allows elementary, middle and high school students to attend the event for 90 minutes a day for three days, said Beeler. Elementary and middle school children attend the services Monday through Wednesday, and high school students attend Wednesday through Friday. Community members also attend.

Two teachers participated in this year’s gathering, said Wayne Goforth, supervisor of technology and media for the Union County school system. Teachers must use leave time to attend the event, he said.

The crusade, which begins each morning at 9:30 a.m., is like an “old-time church revival,” said Beeler. “Preaching, singing, praying and worshipping” occur at the gathering, he said.

Tyla’s mother, Sara Tracy, says she opposes the crusade because it infringes on her daughter’s right to choose her own religion. “They’re putting their religion on my children,” Tracy said. “My children are ostracized and left out because 95 percent of the students attend the crusade.”

Tracy and her husband have two other children in Union County public schools. Garrett, a Union County High School student, and India, a Sharps Chapel Elementary School student, also did not attend the crusade.

“I think if we asked that our religion receive the same time we’d be burned at the stake,” said Tracy, who does not want to reveal her family’s religious affiliation.

“We’re not wanting to spread our religion,” said Tyla. “I don’t want religion in school because it makes me feel uncomfortable,” she said. “People talk about religion in school every day, saying that prayer should be back in school. I don’t feel comfortable with that.”

Last year when Tyla, then a student at Horace Maynard Middle School, did not attend the crusade, she said her teacher, Lisa Stalens, gave her extra work to punish her. Stalens told her, “Maybe this will help you to remember your permission slip tomorrow,” Tyla said.

Teachers give students permission slips to take home to their parents each year to sign for the children to attend the event. About 2,000 of the county’s 3,000 students attended the crusade this month, Goforth said. Some students are bused to the event.

The children that choose to remain behind continue with regularly scheduled class work, said Goforth.

Tyla said she had complained to teachers at Horace Maynard Middle School and now at Union County High School.

Goforth said Stalens denied that she made the comment, or gave Tyla extra work.

“I don’t know of any teacher that is ostracizing any child” for not going to the crusade, said Beeler. “We had a problem with some teachers not wanting children to go, but every child has a First Amendment right to go,” he said.

Last May, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported that Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, sent a letter to school Superintendent David Coppock in April 2000 saying that “transporting the students to the events on buses is akin to a school-sponsored field trip.”

Beeler said the buses, which are owned by independent contractors, are paid for by his religious organization, Crusade Ministries Inc.

Now the ACLU is waiting for family members to speak out against the Union County school system’s involvement with the crusade, Weinberg told “Next year we hope we’ll have plaintiffs to work with the ACLU to stop such practices,” she said.

“We remain very concerned about the religious crusades taking place in Union County,” Weinberg added. In that teachers distribute the permission slips, collect them from students and return them to a teacher’s mailbox, the school is sponsoring the crusade, she said.

“The school system has been put on notice that the schools are promoting religious activity and should stop,” said Weinberg.

But Beeler says the student-attended crusade does not violate the First Amendment. “This is a released-time thing,” he said.

Beeler was referring to a released-time provision that allows public school students to leave class during school time for religious education. The Supreme Court upheld a released-time program in its 1952 Zorach v. Clauson decision. Four years earlier in McCollum v. Board of Education, the court struck down a released-time program conducted on school grounds.

Beeler says there is no church-state separation in the Constitution. “The phrase has been misused by the media to the point that they have brainwashed the American public into believing that it’s a part of the Constitution and it’s not even in the Constitution,” he said.

The phrase originates from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to a Baptist group in Danbury, Conn., in which Jefferson said the First Amendment clause against establishment of religion was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and state.”

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