October 5, 2013

Schools in Biddeford asked to apologize

The ACLU of Maine says a program subjected some students to ‘overtly religious presentations.’

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is asking two Biddeford public schools to apologize for a program that the organization says subjected students to “overtly religious presentations” in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Presentations of a program called “Life Choices” by a Rochester, Ind., group of the same name were made Sept. 24 at Biddeford Middle School and Sept. 25 at Biddeford High School by Debbie Phillips, whose niece was killed at Columbine High School in 1999.

The presentations included video footage of dead students in the shooting at the Littleton, Colo., school, as well as graphic accounts of the murder there of the first victim, Rachel Scott, Phillips’ niece; promotion of abstinence; and judgmental statements about clothing choices, according to the ACLU of Maine.

There were multiple references to “Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior” and “being killed for Christ,” the organization said in a statement Friday. The Constitution prohibits such school-sponsored religion, it said.

“It is the right of families, not schools, to raise children with certain religious beliefs and values – or none at all,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “This sort of proselytizing has no place in Maine’s public schools, and we are hopeful other schools will keep this in mind when planning presentations.”

Phillips said Friday her public school presentations focus on tolerance and respect, not religious messages.

“I preach the gospel in churches, but I don’t do that in public schools,” she said. “We respect the forum we’re in. We’ve been vetted by lawyers who believe we are constitutionally correct and don’t cross the line.”

Southern Maine school officials differ about whether the program is appropriate for schools.

The Biddeford schools superintendent said Friday the presentation carried important messages, while the Massabesic schools superintendent said the recent presentation in that district pushed the line on what is appropriate in a public school. A presentation also was scheduled to take place at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, but was canceled after school officials heard about its content from other school districts and decided it “wasn’t a good fit for our district,” said Superintendent Frank Sherburne.

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray, who attended a presentation last week, said he has not heard from students or parents with concerns about the content of Phillips’ message.

“These presentations were promoted as relating to the tragedy at Columbine and as supporting tolerance, school safety and respect toward others,” he said. “The programs did address these issues as well as student self-worth and the dangers of bullying. These are important messages relating to student safety that the school department is committed to sharing with students.”

Ray said he is sorry if anyone was offended by the presentation and “it wasn’t our intent to do anything wrong.”

The ACLU of Maine is asking Biddeford schools to apologize to all students and commit to not hosting Life Choices presentations in the future. Rachel Healy, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maine, said the organization “wouldn’t rule out litigation” if Biddeford officials do not apologize.

The organization was contacted by a Biddeford parent who was concerned about the presentation, Healy said.

The Life Choices presentation also was given at Massabesic High School in Waterboro. In addition, Phillips made presentations at local churches during her trip to Maine.

The Biddeford presentation was sponsored by Volk Packaging of Biddeford, according to Ray. Owner Derek Volk did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

“My belief is that (Volk) had very good intentions,” Ray said.

Life Choices has presented 700 programs to a half-million students across the country in the past 10 years, according to its website.

(Continued on page 2)

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