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ACLU of Maine: Biddeford Parents Complain about School Program's Religious Overtones
10/04/2013   Reported By: Keith Shortall

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is asking the Biddeford School Department to apologize for inviting a Christian ministry group to host assemblies for middle and high school students, and warning that proselytizing in public schools in unconstitutional. The co-founder of the group "Life Choices" says the allegations are unfounded, and that the presentations have been made in hundreds of schools around the country. Keith Shortall reports.

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The ACLU says that it's investigating complaints from parents of students at Biddeford Middle School who objected to presentations given at the schools last week by a group called "Life Choices Ministries."

"The primary complaint that we heard was that the program was presenting a very particularly religious view, and parents thought that was innappropriate," says ACLU of Maine Legal Director Zachary Heiden.

Heiden says the presentations, also given at Biddeford High School and a number of other schools in Maine recently, violate the Constitution's First Amendment, in particular the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from promoting a particular religous view, or from promoting religion over non-religion.

"The woman who was leading the presentation at Biddeford Middle school repeatedly referred to God, referred to 'Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior,' talked about 'dying for Christ,' talked about 'martyrdom,'" Heiden says, "and all of that runs well over the line that the courts have drawn with regard to the Establishment Clause."

"I never used the word 'martyrdom,'" says Life Choices co-founder Debbie Phillips. Phillips insists that she did not make any of the references alleged by the ACLU. She says she does use those phrases when presenting the Life Choices program that's given in churches.

"I noticed that what they were saying was from a church program. I thought, 'That's not the school program!'" she says. "That's not the school program - they're really mixin it up."

And Phillips says she does not use the title of "pastor," as the ACLU claims, or identify her group as a "ministry" when giving the presentation in public schools. The message of the presentation, she says, which has been given at hundreds of schools around the country, is one of pro-kindness, of self-respect, but not religion.

"No one can make anybody become a Christian or anything," Phillips says. "That's offensive even to me. People get to decide in the light of day - you get to chose what you want to believe."

The assembly programs also address the issue of school violence. Phillips own niece, Rachel Scott, was among the victims of the Columbine School shootings, and Phillips says while she talks about Rachel as a person of faith who reached out other kids, there's no prosyletizing involved.

"She could have been Buddhist or Muslim - or even gay," Phillips says. "She died for what she believed in, and I don't believe anyone should have to die for what they believe in in our nation."

Biddeford Schools Superintendent Jeremy Ray issued a written statement acknowledging that the Life Choices programs were presented at the middle school and high school on Sept. 24 and 25. He says the programs promoted tolerance, school safety, and respect toward others and the dangers of bullying.

In his statement, Ray says, "After attending the programs, it is clear that there were religious references in the program, and I can understand that such references could have offended some students or others. "

Ray goes on to say that he's sorry if anyone was offended, and that the school department does not support or endorse any religious message.

The ACLU's Zachary Heiden says it's unclear whether further steps, including legal action, might be taken.



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