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Carlton: Does a church belong in our public schools?

Pastor Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church talks to  Hillsborough County school principals and assistant principals at a training session in October. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] 

Pastor Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church talks to Hillsborough County school principals and assistant principals at a training session in October. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] 

In our public schools, are we blurring the line that's supposed to separate church and state?

The Times' Marlene Sokol reported this week on a "partnership" between Hillsborough County schools and the powerful Idlewild Baptist Church.

The conservative mega-church, which sits on 143 acres in the Lutz suburbs, has gotten tied in with the school system over the years, volunteering and lately organizing nonreligious speakers for monthly events. Church members give out T-shirts with the Idlewild logo that some teachers wear.

In fact, a recent event packed with Hillsborough principals — at which Idlewild's prominent senior pastor, Ken Whitten, did the introductions — was scheduled to be held at the church itself. Until it was moved to, you know, a school.

It's clear that with schools perpetually short on funding, some are happy to take faith-based help, and other churches have gotten involved, too. And maybe it's easier to ignore that line if the religion coming in fits tidily into your own beliefs.

But where does that leave inclusion? What about those civics class lessons they taught us about how important it is for our government not to appear to endorse one religion or another in this diverse country of ours?

Don't get me wrong: Volunteering is a wonderful and noble thing, and community is more necessary that ever for public schools. But church and state still need a healthy, respectful distance.

Idlewild leaders support conservative causes, prominent Republicans campaign there, and church members take public stands against abortion and gay marriage. And that's absolutely their right.

But does even a hint of implied approval of those stances belong in public schools?

Maybe you're thinking: Where's the harm? Then imagine we're talking about a church with values different from your own in "partnership" with your kids' teachers and administrators.

Or how about this: Printed shirts Idlewild members wear to school events include the words, "because Christ loved us." Substitute "Allah."

Actually, we know how that would likely turn out. A few years back, a speaker from a Muslim advocacy group drew strong backlash from religious conservatives after he was invited to speak to a Lutz high school honors class in world history.

Said a woman at a rally to protest his presence in the classroom: "Don't indoctrinate our kids. Don't bring it in the schools." Which you might also apply here.

School officials are walking a fine line, saying teachers and principals participate voluntarily. Church officials say they're not trying to recruit anyone and that they know their role in the schools.

But how voluntary is it when there's clearly approval from bosses on high?

Here is the best explanation of the potential problem in crossing that line, from the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun:

"When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion, it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some."

Which doesn't sound like a lesson that belongs in our public schools.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

Carlton: Does a church belong in our public schools? 11/17/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2015 7:18pm]
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