A fine line between church and state: Eastern Howard School Corp. acknowledges Christian influence within public school district (Kokomo Tribune)

A quote attributed to George Washington adorns a wall of Peter Heck’s classroom at Eastern High School. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

Eastern Howard School Corp. acknowledges Christian influence within public school district

GREENTOWN – It’s there in the group of student athletes gathered before school each Wednesday to read the Bible together. It shows up when the elementary school student of the month is recognized for his “strong personal faith” as well as his classroom performance. It’s in the prayers before school board meetings, beginning-of-the-year staff meetings and choir performances.

The Christian influence at Eastern Howard School Corp. shows up in a variety of ways among administrators, staff and students.

“We are a community of Christians who also are teachers and educators, and I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door because the bell rings,” said Eastern Schools Superintendent Tracy Caddell. “But by the same token, we’re not teaching doctrine. We’re teaching kids, hopefully, to love thy neighbor as thyself.”

As a public school, Eastern is prohibited from endorsing or practicing a specific religion, and for the most part, Eastern employees walk that line. Sometimes, they cross it.

“We are a community of Christians who also are teachers and educators, and I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door.”

This is a school district that serves 1,465 students embedded in the predominately Christian community of Greentown, population 2,400. Most students are not only comfortable with school staff expressing their personal faith in a professional capacity, but they appreciate it. The school’s values are very much a reflection of the broader community, and if no one challenges whether the school district’s approach is constitutional, it’s possible for personal faith to be incorporated in a public school.

Religion in public schools

Ken Falk, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, says under no circumstances should religion and public education be comingled. It is unconstitutional.

“A public school should have no role in promoting religion,” Falk said. “This is an area where the law is very clear.”

The national American Civil Liberties Union addressed the issue of religion in public schools in a joint statement that offers a summary of current law and Supreme Court decisions. The statement was published in 1995 and backed by 35 groups representing a variety of religious and political backgrounds

In general, the idea is that public schools can’t endorse any specific religion as part of their obligation to protect students’ rights to freely practice any religion they choose.

“The whole point about government and religion is you don’t want anyone to feel singled out,” Falk said, adding that children are especially susceptible to religious coercion because they don’t process varying belief systems the same way adults do.

Just because the majority of a community shares the same belief system doesn’t mean the school can promote those values, Falk emphasized.

“There may be people in the community who do not believe the same thing, but you’ll never hear from them because [the students] and their parents don’t feel they can speak up,” he said.

Eastern HS History Topics
Danielle Reed follows along on her iPad as another classmate reads from the Book of Judges in Eastern High School’s History Topics class on January 29, 2015. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

Faith doesn’t end with the school bell

Caddell is quick to acknowledge the Christian influence throughout his district. He underscores that it’s a matter of teachers and staff living out their beliefs and modeling positive values for students, rather than preaching or promoting a certain doctrine.

“Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and that doesn’t stop just because the school bell rings,” Caddell said. “As a leader, I’m hoping that we’re promoting what people would call Christian values. However, we’re not promoting or teaching Christian doctrine. There’s a big difference.”

Some of the Christian values Caddell hopes are evident among staff include compassion, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control and love.

“I’m a firm believer that we’re more than just teaching kids about English and math,” he said. “We’re teaching kids about building peaceful, healthy relationships. If we as teachers and educators and superintendents – and Christians – can model those behaviors, I think that’s a big positive.”

In addition to the moral code Eastern staff model for students, the school corporation also offers more structured means for Christian values to become a part of the school culture. Eastern Elementary School teaches character education, Eastern Jr./Sr. High School hosts a Fellowship of Christian Athletes student club and students organize an annual See You At The Pole prayer event. Also, high school students can elect to take a History Topics class that teaches the Bible as literature.

Area churches also are involved with the schools. Jerome Christian Church in Greentown partners with the elementary school to offer a Kids Hope mentoring program. Oakbrook Church in Kokomo ran Eastern’s character education program before school counselor Gina Stahl took it over. First United Methodist Church of Greentown helps with the school’s Buddy Bags program through Kokomo Urban Outreach to send food home for the weekend with kids in need. Eastern students and staff also participate in a variety of community outreach activities, which are highlighted each month through the corporation’s new Eastern Cares initiative.

“There are different churches that have been involved in helping us with our mission of helping and supporting kids. None of these groups have ever come in and tried to force their doctrine on the school, that’s for sure,” Caddell said. “They’re not here to teach doctrine to the kids. They’re here to show them there are adults who care for you.”

Walking the line

“Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders,” an Eastern High School student read from Judges 2:16 at the request of his teacher during class one morning in January.

It may come as a surprise to know the Bible is read during class at a public school, but it’s protected by the Constitution in the context of Peter Heck’s History Topics class at EHS. The history of religion, comparative religion and any religious text-as-literature are acceptable public school courses, the ACLU’s joint statement advises.

“The entire premise of the course is that an educated person knows the Bible.”

“The entire premise of the course is that an educated person knows the Bible,” said Heck, who is an Eastern graduate and has taught in the district for 12 years. “If we were graduating students from Eastern – or from any school – who were unable to do basic addition or subtraction, everybody would flip out about that. … And yet, we continually in this country and in this state are graduating high school students who don’t have any fundamental basis of understanding the Bible.

“That is the basis of Western civilization, so I’m curious as to why there isn’t outrage at how we can have young people going off to college who don’t have any concept or any understanding of a group of documents that provided the basis of everything we see around us [like art, literature, government and ethics],” Heck continued.

His lesson on Judges that day focused on how God used unexpected people to do something profound, and Heck went over the pattern of life for the Israelites during that period in history. Then students were assigned to identify unique characteristics of each judges’ rule.

EHS began offering History Topics in 2012, and it has been popular among students, with 30 to 35 signing up for the elective social studies course each semester. This school year, 60 students signed up for it, so Eastern adopted a blended learning model where Heck simultaneously teaches two sections of the class; half the students come to school for class one day and then the other half comes the next day, and students complete digital learning from home on the days they’re not required to be in class.

“Maybe there’s a little bit of novelty to it that it’s something different. For some students who are church goers, they may have the impression that this will be an easy A,” Heck said of students’ interest. “Probably, curiosity may be the most profound factor.”

Likely another reason for the class’ popularity is Heck’s sense of humor and his repertoire with the students. It’s easy to see why they enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of the class and the chance to joke with Heck as he teaches.

“He’s just an awesome teacher,” said senior Jenny Keith. “People enjoy having him, so they take whatever chance they can get to have [a class with] him.”

Outside of school hours, Heck hosts a conservative radio talk show, “The Peter Heck Radio Show,” where he discusses politics “through the lens of Christianity.” In the decade Heck has hosted various radio shows, he’s been outspoken about his views opposing gay rights, abortion and President Barack Obama’s “defense of radical Islam,” to name a few of the recent topics discussed on his show.

But none of that comes into the classroom, Heck says.

“I will say the school has been very good about allowing me the freedom of speech and to have a career outside the classroom,” Heck said. “They’ve simply requested, and I’ve assured them many times, that what I do here [in the classroom] is distinctly different from what I do there [on the radio show].”

Eastern HS History Topics
Nathan Everett (left) and Evan Rodgers work together on an assignment to summarize the different judges from the Book of Judges in Eastern High School’s History Topics class. January 29, 2015. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo TribuneKelly Lafferty Gerber

Many of his students are aware he hosts a radio show, Heck said, but it’s not something about which they are likely to have a conversation. He doesn’t think many high school students are interested in the political issues he discusses on his show.

“Especially doing a program like that in my outside-of-school career, it makes me even more cautious because I know there are those who will say, ‘There is no way he can be that way outside of school and keep those biases out of what he does in the classroom,’” Heck said. “It’s almost as though there’s a keener microscope on me because of it, so I’m conscious of it and I want to do a very effective job of not crossing that line.”

Another teacher, Karol Evenson, takes a different approach to mingling her faith and her professional role. Evenson has been the choir teacher at Eastern Jr./Sr. High School for 31 years. She grew up in a Christian family that was very active in their church, and she holds those same values today. Evenson says she carries her faith into the classroom as a natural extension of herself, and she was moved to the point of tears to hear that her students took notice of that.

“It’s just who I am, so I’m not going to deny it and if I have an opportunity where I’m going to share it, I’m going to.”

“It’s a very big part of my life so how can I teach and it not be a part of my teaching?” she said. “It’s just who I am, so I’m not going to deny it and if I have an opportunity where I’m going to share it, I’m going to.”

However, teachers and administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state, the ACLU specifies. They are prohibited from encouraging or soliciting student religious or anti-religious activities, and they may not engage in religious activities with their students.

The main example Evenson gave of an opportunity for her to combine her faith with school events is the school’s annual Christmas program, which includes a Nativity re-enactment featuring faculty members. Students also sing secular and religious Christmas songs during the program, which draws a crowd big enough to fill Eastern’s  Performing Arts Center each year, Evenson said.

“That is one major thing that’s done at Christmas time where we are singing about the birth of Christ,” she said. “I just get real passionate about that when I’m teaching it, so it allows me to share things. A lot of times, I tell the kids, ‘I’m not asking you to believe, I’m hoping that you do and that you will, but I’m trying to get you to feel the music and what we’re singing about.’ A lot of the kids here do believe it, so when they are singing those pieces, it’s such a blessing for me.”

Falk said the Nativity should not be part of a public school event. Public schools may teach objectively about religious holidays and may celebrate secular holidays, but it is unconstitutional to observe holidays as religious events at a public school.

Evenson gives students the option not to participate in the religious aspects of the Christmas program, and she said one or two students in her three decades of teaching have taken advantage of that option. She also allows students to step aside when she prays with students before every choir show.

“I tell them if they don’t want to do that, they can step into the hallway,” Evenson said. “Before a concert or a show that we do, we always stand in a circle and pray. Most times I lead it, … and sometimes a student will step up to do it.”

Evenson said she has never gotten the sense that some students were not comfortable with the prayer but stayed in the group just to avoid singling themselves out.

“I’ve never had a parent call me and complain that we’d done that,” she added. “I feel like if it had made their child that uncomfortable, they would tell their parent and the parent would be calling me.”

Caddell is glad staff and students feel empowered to share their faith at school.

“I think it’s important to remember that you don’t give up your faith because the school bell rings. I think kids need to know that, I think teachers need to know that and staff,” Caddell said. “Over time, we’ve gotten so worried about political correctness in this country that people have not had the opportunity to feel comfortable being a Christian in a public school. I think that’s sad, because that’s who you are.”

Eastern HS History Topics
Peter Heck teaches History Topics, an elective at Eastern High School that talks about the Bible’s historical influence. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo TribuneKelly Lafferty Gerber

What do the students think?

In various ways, students also express their faith at school, which is protected by the Constitution.

The most prominent way may be through the high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which is part of a national network of athletes and coaches committed to making an impact for Christ.

There are about 30 high school students involved in the club that meets every Wednesday before school for breakfast and a devotional. Junior high students started their own chapter of the club this school year, too. There are about 700 students total in Eastern’s Jr./Sr. high school.

“It’s a way to show leadership and it’s time spent with God in the mornings with a group of people,” said Megan Dean, a senior who plays tennis and is involved in FCA.

The group organizes Eastern’s See You At The Pole event, which drew about 40 people to pray before school one morning. It also participated in the Kokomo Rescue Mission’s Yes We Can canned food drive and hosts other activities for club members. Religious clubs, as required by the Equal Access Act, must be granted the same opportunities as any other student group at a public school.

Several members of the FCA said they think many of their peers are Christians, but they don’t see religion is a dividing point at the school. Dean said it’s more common for Eastern students to identify as Christian than not.

“At least for me, I have a lot of friends who aren’t Christians here,” added senior Courtney Clark, a member of FCA. “The community at Eastern is amazing. Pretty much everyone gets along. I don’t ever really see discrimination of anyone. Religion isn’t a big deal for friends here. A lot of us have friends with different religions, so I wouldn’t say they would feel alienated ever or like there’s a barrier.”

Students also know many of their teachers are Christians. They said it’s apparent in the way teachers try to build relationships with students, and Evenson said students will come to her when there’s something going on in their lives they would like her to pray about.

“They also teach a lot of moral standards, where you can just tell it’s coming from a Christian background,” Clark said. “Not in a way that they force it on us, but you can just tell that they are.”

Senior Sam Rocchio, also a member of FCA, thinks the Christian influence in Eastern’s school culture is apparent to those who share the same belief system, but it doesn’t alienate others.

“Being a Christian, you can see the environment and you can feel it around you and you just know,” he said, adding students see teachers outside of school at church events sometimes. “It wouldn’t be a surprise to say there’s a good amount of the population that’s probably not [Christian]. This is a public school; it’s not like we’re Christian based.”

At the elementary level, there are no organized religious clubs. The closest students may come to a time in their school day set aside for religious purposes would be the moment of silence held each morning after the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Some of them don’t know what to do during a moment of silence, so I tell them if you’re thinking of a family member today, that’s a good time to do it,” said Eastern Elementary School teacher Randy Maurer. “If you’re wanting to plan for your day, you can think of the things you need to accomplish, and I always say, if you’re the type who likes to pray that’s a time to say a prayer if you want. Or you can think about something that happened on the way to school.”

The junior/senior high school also holds a moment of silence each day; assistant principal Brad Fuggett said the moment has never been specifically explained to students because they have grown up with it in elementary school. The Supreme Court ruled in a 1985 case out of Alabama that schools can hold a moment of silence as a chance for students to pray voluntarily if they choose, but it is unconstitutional to designate a moment of silence in school specifically for prayer.

A reflection of the community

Many school staff members say the culture at Eastern is an extension of the attitudes that permeate all of Greentown, which is home to seven Christian churches. But even if the majority of the community shares the same faith, one can’t draw the conclusion that every Greentown resident or person affiliated with Eastern Schools is a Christian.

“We are a small Greentown community that is a predominately Christian community, and I would assume those values would be expressed through the school.”

“We are a small Greentown community that is a predominately Christian community, and I would assume those values would be expressed through the school,” Caddell said, adding the school corporation’s value system was established well before he started as superintendent there.

He said he has not heard from a family who was put off by the school culture at Eastern.

“I’ve not had that happen,” Caddell said. “I mean really, what is a parent going to say – that we want you to love my child less or show them less compassion?

“I’ve had people tell me that Eastern’s about as close to a private school as you can get and still be a public school,” he added, saying he believes that stems from the moral values displayed within the schools. “I’ve had lots of teachers and staff members tell me that Eastern’s just a different place. It’s nice to have people care about you.”

Working at Eastern has been a blessing, Caddell said, because it ties into his values. His co-workers have strengthened his faith, and their support especially meant a lot to him last April as he recovered from a stroke.

Evenson also feels blessed to work at the school corporation.

“I’m thrilled that I have taught in a school system like this. I think there is a reason that I got put here,” she said, choking up with emotion again. “This community is very Christian-based, and the kids are very involved with their faith. It does make it easier to open up and talk about things like that because you have more support in the community.”

Heck and Maurer said they feel Eastern provides an environment where people feel comfortable expressing their faith, but are not forced to adopt a certain belief system.

“I think Eastern reflects the values of the Greentown community. There are a number of excellent churches in this area,” Heck said. “I would say a very large percentage of our student body and families represented here are Christian. Many of my colleagues are Christians, and some of them aren’t. But everyone I know promotes Christian values in the sense that they’re not preaching Jesus, but they’re living Jesus. … That’s the form Eastern’s Christian values take.”


Follow up reporting included concerns raised by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (here), and the school corporation’s response to those concerns (here). 

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