‘Bible Man’ OK’d by Jackson County school board
SCOTTSBORO, Alabama –A parent’s complaint about religious assemblies during the school day brought more than 100 people supporting the assemblies to a called meeting of the Jackson County school board Monday night (Jan. 30, 2012).
Board members retired with their attorney into closed executive session to consider the five-page complaint sent last month by the Freedom from Religion Foundation on behalf of the parents. After an hour’s deliberations, board members returned to the room to announce, to applause, that they would not be banning the Bible Man from schools, despite the complaint about his monthly meetings with county elementary children.
While the board deliberated, the standing-room-only crowd prayed, sang and shared stories of the “Bible Man,” as Horace Turner Jr. is called. The Bible Man began his ministry at least 35 years ago in schools in the northeast Alabama county. The ministry is now conducted by his son. Bible Man leads assemblies with elementary children to tell stories from the Bible, said superintendent Kenneth Harding on Wednesday. It’s a schedule similar to that of the county’s 4-H leaders, who come to schools once a month.
“We know it’s going to be a fight,” Harding said. “But our constituents are pretty adamant about what they want for their children. Hopefully we can meet the law and keep the man, too.”
Freedom from Religion co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said Wednesday the First Amendment watchdog foundation, which is based in Wisconsin, will be following up on their complaint. As of Wednesday, she said they had not been notified of the board’s decision.
“This is totally unacceptable,” Gaylor said.
“The courts have told us what we can and cannot do pretty explicitly,” said John Porter III, attorney for the Jackson County school system, speaking from his office Wednesday. “What we are trying to do is to work out a legal way for Mr. Turner to continue to come to the schools.”
Object? Then homeschool
Any parent who objects to the Bible Man should consider homeschooling, says Alabama Sen. Shadrack McGill (R) of the state’s Eighth District, whose children have been educated both through homeschooling and in the Jackson County schools.
“We were established to be a godly nation, a Christian nation,” McGill said Wednesday. “We need God in government. We need God in the public school. The more we trend away from God, the more we suffer – morally and spiritually.”
McGill says his views about the Bible Man are shared by the majority of his constituents.
No one supporting the complaint spoke at the meeting.
The Foundation’s five-page, single-spaced complaint lays out dozens of legal precedents set in cases involving religious activities organized by public schools around the country. The Foundation lists the Alabama Freethought Society, a Scottsboro-area network of atheists, as a member group.
Until the school system devises a policy that will meet Constitutional scrutiny, Turner will not be returning to the North Sand Mountain School, which is where the student attends whose parents filed the complaint, Jackson County superintendent Kenneth Harding said Wednesday. Harding said he did not know Turner’s schedule and would not specify if his visits are continuing at other schools while the policy is being formulated.
The complaint also notes there is public prayer at football games and a school-organized prayer breakfast for football players and cheerleaders that was held at a local church. All of these activities, the complaint states, are violations of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which bars the government from establishing religion.
“Public schools are not to be a conduit for missionaries,” Gaylor said. “It’s improper to proselytize in an elementary school. This is predation – with the blessing of the school district.”
‘Quran Man’ next?
Both Porter and Harding said that allowing the Bible Man to make his presentations during an open period in which other activities are also offered on a voluntary basis could meet the demands of the law. Harding said that asking Bible Man to come before or after school creates a hardship for children who do want to participate, since most ride a school bus in the largely rural, widely scattered county.
An online petition posted at iPetitions.com had 938 signatures as of today (Feb. 3, 2012) and dozens of comments about what the Bible Man has meant to children over the years.
Turner, who could not be reached for comment, simply teaches stories and moral lessons from the Bible, Harding said. The FFRF complaint states those talks have included telling the children that Jesus died on the cross for their sins. Turner also gives children who have had birthdays during the month toy coins embossed with a Bible verse from the Christian New Testament.
While McGill and Harding both said the assemblies were always voluntary, Freedom From Religion co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said that the courts are very clear in noting elementary children, in particular, cannot discern what is required and what is not. Also, she said, peer pressure to attend would be significant.
“We cannot put the power of religious interpretation in the hands of the Bible Man, the Quran Man or anyone else,” Gaylor said. “We cannot offer indoctrinal classes in public schools. It’s disingenuous to say this does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.”