TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins reaffirmed his support Tuesday for a Christian organization that aims to expand its presence in the public schools.
Addressing First Priority Tampa Bay — which has grown to serve dozens of local schools in the past six years, with the goal of helping students share the message of Christ — Eakins said the group's school-based clubs are integral to the culture he is trying to shape in the district.
"We're trying to build great character and great integrity, and ultimately capture the hearts of our kids," he told an audience of about 100 people at the South Tampa Fellowship at Ballast Point.
His message comes as the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are questioning the district's involvement with another Christian ministry.
First Priority, part of a national movement, teaches students to feel comfortable discussing their faith and spread the Gospel at school. The clubs, which are trained and advised by the organization, bring religious leaders to campus for voluntary student prayer and discussion sessions.
Free pizza is often served at the lunchtime events nicknamed "Jesus Pizza Day."
Speaking before Eakins, students told the group that 7,603 students have attended the club meetings this school year. Of those, 247 expressed "decisions for Christ." The group's website indicates it is active in 22 schools in Hillsborough and two in Pinellas County.
School Board members Cindy Stuart and Sally Harris attended Tuesday's meeting, as did several principals and district administrators.
Eakins, meanwhile, finds himself having to respond to organizations that worry about church involvement in the schools.
The ACLU, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Atheists of Florida all have contacted Eakins in response to Tampa Bay Times reports about Idlewild Baptist Church, which sends volunteers and mentors to high-poverty schools. Idlewild's leaders also are running a series of training and motivational sessions for school administrators.
Critics point to Idlewild's gift of teacher T-shirts that included the church name and logo, and volunteer shirts worn at Just Elementary School, which include the Bible verse, "Loving 'JUST' Because Christ Loved Us."
Both the church and Eakins have insisted the activities do not cross the line into proselytizing, that they are simply supporting the district's core values and participation is strictly voluntary. But the ACLU and the Jewish council have suggested that school staffers feel a social pressure to support the church activities, and that there is an implication that the district endorses one religion over all others.
Eakins spoke Tuesday about how First Priority's work supports his eight core values. "You are all over our cultural model, and I want to let you know, as a superintendent, how important that is," he told the group.
He mentioned Christ once while stating the importance of strong community partners in helping students overcome challenges.
"We have to have organizations just like First Priority that are working with students who have made that commitment in their life to follow Christ, he said.
"And so to have people that are right there with them, that are helping them overcome those challenges and remember where their strength and their hope lies, is powerful. You have to know the impact you are having across our entire population."
Eakins also commended the group for having a clear mission and vision, something he said is necessary for any organization working with the school system.
The group, he said, exemplifies servant leadership — one of his core values — in teaching students that "it is really not about themselves. That's sending a powerful message to them for later on in life."
Opponents of church involvement in schools often cite the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which is widely interpreted as a prohibition against government — including public schools — favoring one religion.
"Coersion is not a required element for it to be a violation of the establishment clause," said attorney Ian Smith of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He considers lunchtime "Jesus pizza" unconstitutional, as it comes in the middle of the day, when students are compelled to be at school.
But the First Amendment also protects a student's right to free speech, including religious speech. Legal arguments typically turn on whether an activity is student led, which would be permitted, or staff led, which would not.
Earlier this year a teacher in Florence, Colo. sued the high school where he worked over practices that in some cases resembled those in Hillsborough, including "Jesus pizza" lunch.
The two sides settled, with the school agreeing to avoid any activities that might reasonably be interpreted as religious endorsement.
In an interview after his remarks, Eakins said he is confident there are no Constitutional problems with the First Priority clubs. The federal Equal Access Act allows students to organize for a variety of purposes, not just religious ones, he said.
"Obviously they're giving up time. It's their choice. And we talk to our legal counsel about all of these things," he said.
"It's student-led, student-organized. Certainly, First Priority gives them resources. That helps them. But the students have choices, whether they want to show up or not."
Amber Johansen, the organization's executive director, urged guests at the event to support First Priority clubs any way they can.
"They're not trying to brainwash kids, or beat them over the head with a Bible," she said. "They're sharing their stories."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or email@example.com. Follow @marlenesokol