Athe­ist group’s com­plaint about Fresno po­lice chap­lains is not ac­cu­rate

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY MAREK WARSZAWSKI [email protected]­

Are first-graders in the Fresno Uni­fied School Dis­trict learn­ing im­por­tant life lessons through a class­room read­ing part­ner­ship with the Fresno Po­lice Chap­laincy?

Or are these 6- and 7-year-olds un­wit­tingly be­ing sub­jected to re­li­gious pros­e­ly­tiz­ing and re­cruit­ment?

The answer to those ques­tions likely de­pends on your per­spec­tive and be­liefs. But ei­ther way, it’s a topic we’ll be hear­ing a lot more about after a na­tional non­profit ded­i­cated to the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state sent a com­plaint let­ter to Fresno Uni­fied Su­per­in­ten­dent Bob Nel­son over what it calls a “con­sti­tu­tional vi­o­la­tion” oc­cur­ring within the dis­trict.

At is­sue is the Re­siliency in Stu­dent Ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram where Fresno Po­lice De­part­ment chap­lains make weekly vis­its to 42 class­rooms through­out Fresno Uni­fied for the pur­pose of read­ing chil­dren’s books to the stu­dents. Records show the dis­trict pays $65,000 an­nu­ally for this ser­vice.

“It’s egre­gious – it’s just so ob­vi­ous,” Free­dom From Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion Co-Pres­i­dent An­nie Lau­rie Gay­lor said by phone.

“It’s one thing to have the po­lice come in and have a pro­gram for stu­dents. But to have a chap­lain come in? No. This is very con­cern­ing and, frankly, un­con­sti­tu­tional.”

Fresno Uni­fied’s Nel­son, while mind­ful of his du­ties and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, does not share that per­spec­tive.

“Fun­da­men­tally I agree (with the FFRF). As ed­u­ca­tors we can­not ei­ther en­dorse or es­tab­lish re­li­gion in our schools. That’s sacro­sanct. We know that. Kids are im­pres­sion­able, and we have to rec­og­nize that as adults,” Nel­son said.

“That be­ing said, the in­tent of the RISE pro­gram has al­ways been sec­u­lar in na­ture and the cur­ricu­lum is sec­u­lar in na­ture.”

Fed­eral law, as well as Fresno Uni­fied pol­icy on this topic, is clear. Sec­tion 6141.2 of the dis­trict’s board code pro­hibits re­li­gious pros­e­ly­tiz­ing, re­cruit­ment, tes­ti­mo­ni­als,

the pro­mo­tion of re­li­gion, or demon­strat­ing a pref­er­ence for one re­li­gious be­lief or sect over an­other by vis­i­tors on school premises.

Fur­ther­more, vis­i­tors can­not an­nounce re­li­gious events or en­cour­age at­ten­dance. Nor may ad­min­is­tra­tors and teach­ers al­low “the ac­tive and direct distri­bu­tion of re­li­gious or anti-re­li­gious ma­te­ri­als.”

Since RISE be­gan in 2011, has a po­lice chap­lain ever been ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing these di­rec­tives?

“Never,” Nel­son replied. “We’ve never had any­one ex­press any de­gree of con­cern that peo­ple in the class­rooms are en­gag­ing in any­thing re­li­gious, pseudo-re­li­gious or oth­er­wise.”

I un­der­stand the FFRF’s alarm. Giv­ing chap­lains unique ac­cess to first­graders opens the door to pros­e­ly­tiz­ing and re­li­gious in­flu­ence. A slo­gan that reads “Min­istry can’t al­ways wait un­til Sun­day” printed on a RISE pro­mo­tional brochure cer­tainly raised my eye­brows.

How­ever, some of the is­sues raised in the com­plaint let­ter aren’t fac­tual. For ex­am­ple, Fresno po­lice chap­lains don’t have to be Chris­tian or re­li­gious, I’m told. Even athe­ists can ap­ply. The only re­quire­ments are time (at least 5 hours per week dur­ing the school year) and pass­ing an ex­ten­sive back­ground check.


In ad­di­tion, the chil­dren’s books read aloud by RISE vol­un­teers aren’t in any way re­li­gious. The ma­te­ri­als are se­lected to pro­mote uni­ver­sally ac­cepted char­ac­ter traits such as hon­esty, per­se­ver­ance and treat­ing oth­ers like you want to be treated.

And let’s be hon­est: There are many, many first-graders through­out Fresno Uni­fied who aren’t be­ing taught those valu­able lessons at home.

In its com­plaint let­ter, the FFRF lifted a quote from the chap­laincy’s web­site in which a RISE vol­un­teer states, “My prayer is God will con­tinue to use me as a bea­con of His light to the kid­dos at Su­san B. An­thony. God is able to take our ashes and turn them into some­thing beau­ti­ful. I’m hum­bled and hon­ored to be a chap­lain to these chil­dren.”

To the FFRF, this is proof (or at least damn­ing ev­i­dence) that pros­e­ly­tiz­ing is oc­cur­ring. I dis­agree. To me, this is a state­ment that re­veals noth­ing more than some­one’s per­sonal be­liefs. Noth­ing wrong with that.

Some read­ers may ask, “Why do we need an or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Wis­con­sin to keep tabs on what’s go­ing on in Fresno?” Ac­tu­ally, we do.

When school board trustees at Chino Val­ley Uni­fied School Dis­trict (as well as Clo­vis Uni­fied) be­gan ev­ery meet­ing with a prayer, we needed the FFRF to fight that le­gal bat­tle. Which they did – suc­cess­fully.

When a New Mex­ico high school bas­ket­ball coach re­port­edly held Bi­ble study classes with his play­ers and made them wear T-shirts that read, “I can do all things through Christ who strength­ens me,” we needed the FFRF to step in.

Those are but two of dozens of ex­am­ples. For as long as those in power try to im­pose their re­li­gious views on oth­ers in a pub­lic school or gov­ern­ment set­ting, the FFRF is an in­valu­able ally. So, yes, we do need them.


FFRF at­tor­ney Chris Line, who wrote the let­ter ad­dressed to Nel­son, told me his or­ga­ni­za­tion was tipped off by “a few” pub­lic com­plaints. He then filed a pub­lic records re­quest.

“The law is very clear: Pub­lic money can­not go to any pro­grams with a Chris­tian pur­pose,” Line said.

The $65,000, ac­cord­ing to Nel­son, goes en­tirely to cur­ricu­lum mainly in the form of read­ing ma­te­ri­als handed out to stu­dents.

I at­tempted to in­ter­view RISE pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor John Ed­mond­son, a long­time Fresno Uni­fied prin­ci­pal and teacher. How­ever, my in­ter­view was squelched by Fresno Po­lice De­part­ment brass.

Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

A few years ago the FFRF sent a sim­i­lar com­plaint let­ter to the Tur­lock Uni­fied School Dis­trict over its part­ner­ship with the Tur­lock Chap­laincy. To re­solve the mat­ter, the term “char­ac­ter coaches” re­placed chap­lains.

Nel­son said he is open to hav­ing that dis­cus­sion with school board trustees as well as the Fresno PD. If RISE is truly a sec­u­lar pro­gram and a sim­ple name change is all it takes to pre­vent this dis­pute from wind­ing up in court, there shouldn’t be any ob­jec­tions.

Fresno Bee file

John Ed­mond­son with the Fresno Po­lice Chap­laincy reads to Julie Ham­mack’s first-grade class at Pyle El­e­men­tary School in Fresno in 2016.

Fresno Bee file

Su­per­in­ten­dent Bob Nel­son

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