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Christian schools a world of paradoxes

LARGO — In the morning, Westside Christian School made front-page news for quitting a Christian sports league that disqualified a girl on the boys basketball team. In the afternoon, Westside's Warriors played one of those same conference teams. They'll play more of those teams next week. Girl Warrior Aliyah Farley, 13, will be back, on the court, in uniform.

It sounds confusing, but the way the Aliyah Farley episode has played out is characteristic of Christian schools, both their strict dogma and underlying flexibility.

Most Christian schools in the area have shrugged the whole thing off. They dismiss the notion that the physical contact could lead to sin. In the same situation as Westside's, where too few girls want to form a team, they say they would likely have no problem organizing a mixed team. Some of the schools already have coed teams in sports such as bowling and soccer.

All of the leaders the Times called said they saw no scriptural or theological reason to block girls from playing sports with boys.

"It would not be my first choice," said David Holtzhouse, superintendent at St. Petersburg's Keswick Christian School, "but I certainly don't think it's an issue of sin. Every Christian school has the right to make those determinations on their own."

Yet the vote of 11 schools in the Suncoast Christian Conference appeared tough and decisive: 8-2, with one abstention, to disqualify Aliyah.

Westside is definitely out of the conference. But its students are not divorced from the faith community. They'll still play basketball together, but the games won't be official. Outside of a shared fundamental belief in Jesus Christ, nothing is that simple inside Christian schools.

Explains Timothy Riggs, pastor of Westside Church of the Nazarene, which owns the school, "We don't dwell on legalisms."

Westside's 112 students start every day in the gym with prayers and a physical inspection. Kindergartners and 12th graders alike are checked out: No baggy pants. No underwear showing. No flip flops. No hats. A violation brings detention. Detention means physical labor — sweeping floors and emptying trash cans. Students who serve Saturday detention must pay $10 an hour for their teachers' time.

Not flushing the toilet is sacrilegious. One senior ran straight from the restroom to administrator Vicky Jones: "People at Westside," the boy wailed, "don't do that kind of thing."

Every morning, they pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes and to a Christian flag. They say "I choose to believe God's word."

But jeans are part of the school uniform. Seniors can wear their polo shirts untucked. The students include nonbelievers. There are Jewish students. Last year, a Muslim boy attended. Everyone is required to take Bible class, but individual beliefs are respected.

They're not angels. Pastor Riggs cites the Nazarene credo: "We don't ask for perfect people." Administrator Jones calls Westside "a school of second chances." Kids who have failed elsewhere come for the structure and discipline. Everyone is subject to locker searches. Last year, Westside had one dropout.

Unlike at a lot of Christian schools, dancing is allowed at prom. A ballroom dancing instructor comes in to show them how to slow dance. It's something like the old Catholic school rule — leave enough room in between for the Holy Ghost.

If a girl tells a boy no, that dancing is against her religion, the boy is to thank her and let it be.

Sixth-grader Jacob Poirier's point of view pretty much mirrors the school's way of doing things. He asked his parents to transfer him to Westside from public school because he wanted to pray at school. He's devoutly religious. But he is still a kid. This is what he likes about taking gym class with Aliyah Farley:

"She can hit 3-pointers all day long."

Christian schools a world of paradoxes 12/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 4:20pm]
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