Jewish group expresses concern over Hillsborough schools' partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church

Pastor Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church talks to  Hillsborough County Schools principals and assistant principals at a training session in October. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Pastor Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church talks to Hillsborough County Schools principals and assistant principals at a training session in October. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 21, 2015

TAMPA — The relationship between Idlewild Baptist Church and the Hillsborough County School District crosses church-state boundaries and makes some employees uncomfortable, a Jewish organization said Friday in a letter to superintendent Jeff Eakins.

The Jewish Community Relations Council, an arm of the Tampa Jewish Community Center and Federation, offered to meet with district officials to determine guidelines that will allow the church to help schools and students without the appearance of proselytizing.

"We are not attacking Idlewild Baptist Church," said Jonathan Ellis, an attorney who co-chairs the council. "We don't have an issue with any religious institution assisting or helping in the schools. But we have a problem where this help is inextricably interwoven with the church mission in the school."

The letter, signed by Ellis and co-chair Betsy Torop, follows reports this week by the Tampa Bay Times describing Idlewild's involvement in volunteer principal training sessions and donating T-shirts for teachers that included the phrase, "in partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church."

The church also made coffee coupons available during staff meetings at an elementary school.

The coupons — which were in a separate room teachers could enter voluntarily if they wanted coffee — invited recipients to come to the Lutz church because "We just want a chance to serve YOU and connect with YOU."

Separately, a longtime Idlewild project at low-income Just Elementary School has volunteers dressed in shirts that say "Loving 'JUST' Because Christ Loved Us."

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said, "We received the email today and are reviewing it. We have many partners and want to be sure everyone we partner with knows their roles for and with our students and staff."

Questioned about the relationship in recent weeks, district leaders said there is no pressure on any school employee to wear a T-shirt, attend a principal training session or drink the coffee. Similarly, they said, no teachers at Just are pressured to accept help from the church volunteers.

The district also pointed out that many churches donate supplies and services to the schools.

But Ellis, in his letter, said his organization has been contacted by school employees — not all Jewish, but all wishing to remain anonymous — who believe the administration's public support of the partnership with Idlewild creates an implied pressure to take part, and a fear that any criticism of the relationship "would be viewed disfavorably."

Ellis said he is troubled by the branding that takes place, particularly when shirts with Idlewild's name are worn in the schools. A young child, he said, would logically conclude that the school and school district sanction the church and its beliefs.

Idlewild senior pastor Ken Whitten said he is confident that, if Jewish leaders meet with Eakins, the superintendent will satisfy their concerns.

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He described many contributions his large church makes to the city and county, from reading to foster children to fighting against human trafficking.

"I think what makes you a good Christian should make you a good citizen at the same time," he said. As for the schools, "We have one agenda — growth of teachers and the good of the administration. This is not a bait-and-switch."

At the first principal training session in October, Whitten assured participants that he was not there to recruit members.

But Ellis is not satisfied with such disclaimers.

"The fact that the message is stated in the negative to public employees working in their capacity as public employes does not make the message any more acceptable," he wrote.

Taken with the shirts and the coffee coupons, Ellis wrote, "These actions create the appearance the (school district) endorses the church and proselyt­ization by the church."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol