BIDDEFORD, Maine — A leading Maine civil rights group wants an apology from Biddeford school officials after what it called “unconstitutional” student assemblies last week featuring religious Christian references.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine announced Friday that it has sent a letter to Biddeford school administrators after presentations at the middle and high school last week by Pastor Debbie Phillips of Life Choices amounted to what the organization described as “proselytizing.”
However, Jeremy Ray, Biddeford’s superintendent of schools, said that Phillips’ message supports “tolerance, school safety and respect toward others.”
Phillips, who disputed the ACLU’s characterization of her as a pastor, said she has offered similar programs at schools throughout the country and that the civil liberties group is confusing “what I say in public schools and what I say in churches.”
The ACLU branch stated Friday it was told about the presentations by a “concerned parent,” and that an assembly featuring Phillips included multiple references to “Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior” and “God,” and promoted the pastor’s organization’s mission of “abstinence, salvation and the ministry of life.”
“While students have a basic right to pray voluntarily and express themselves religiously at school, the Constitution prohibits school-sponsored religion,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine, in a statement Friday. “Maine’s public schools should be focused on providing students with a quality education, not religious coercion.”
Alan Casavant — chairman of the Biddeford School Committee, as well as the city’s mayor and a state representative — told the Bangor Daily News on Friday morning that he was “unaware of the presentations until just a few days ago.”
“I just read the letter and cannot comment as I have no firm understanding of what took place at the assemblies,” Casavant wrote in an email. “I do, however, trust in the judgments of my superintendent and principals.”
In an email to the BDN, Ray said he attended Phillips’ presentations and acknowledged that she did make religious references.
“I can understand that such references could have offended some students or others,” he said. “While the program’s messages of school safety and tolerance are crucial and part of the School Department’s overall efforts to maintain a safe school environment, I am sorry if anyone was offended. This was clearly not our intent. The School Department does not support or endorse any religious message.”
Phillips co-founded Life Choices after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, which left 15 people, including Phillips’ niece Rachel Scott, dead. On its website, Life Choices describes itself as an “organization … committed to reaching, rescuing and restoring teenagers and families across America with life-changing events and resources.”
“The point of Rachel Scott’s story is that she took a bullet because she said she believed in God,” Phillips said in an email to the BDN. “The point I make is crystal clear that no one should be killed because of what they believe. Everyone has the power to choose what they want to believe. The program’s overall message is to empower teens that they are supposed to live and not die.”
The group says its touring school programs tackle issues such as “self respect and self worth,” “sexual promiscuity and abstinence,” “drug and alcohol abuse,” “suicide,” “breaking unhealthy generational patterns” and “life planning.” The organization lists endorsements from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, former President George W. Bush, former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
“It is the right of families, not schools, to raise their children with certain religious beliefs and values — or none at all,” continued Heiden in his statement. “This sort of proselytizing has no place in Maine’s public schools, and we are hopeful other schools will keep that in mind when planning presentations.”
The ACLU is seeking a letter of apology from the Biddeford schools to their students and faculty, and a commitment from the department not to invite back Life Choices or other organizations that could be construed as bringing religious messages.
Phillips said her programs have helped prevent school shootings and youth suicides.
“Life Choices brings a message of hope and encouragement to students and teachers alike,” she told the BDN. “I’m just curious if the ACLU has a program to help teens.”
Phillips was not the first family member of Scott to come to Maine schools. Scott’s father, Darrell Scott, came to Maine for a series of workshops at Windham schools last year to share an anti-bullying, pro-compassion message.