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San Luis Coastal adopts 'religious expression' policy in wake of anti-gay letter

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Responding to the community turmoil stirred up in May when a then-SLO High School teacher religiously condemned homosexuality in a letter to the student newspaper SLO Expressions, the San Luis Coastal Unified School District (SLCUSD) board of trustees adopted a "religious expression" policy on Sept. 5 to clarify where, when, and in what manner religious expression is appropriate on school campuses.

CHURCH AND STATE San Luis Coastal Unified School District adopted a "religious expression" policy on Sept. 5 in the wake of last spring's controversy over a former teacher's anti-gay letter published in SLO Expressions. - IMAGE COURTESY OF SLO EXPRESSIONS
  • Image Courtesy Of SLO Expressions
  • CHURCH AND STATE San Luis Coastal Unified School District adopted a "religious expression" policy on Sept. 5 in the wake of last spring's controversy over a former teacher's anti-gay letter published in SLO Expressions.

The policy contains 11 pages' worth of rules and guidelines for religious expression in a variety of contexts, and school officials say it prohibits staff and teachers from penning religious-based letters to student publications for print, which former special education teacher Michael Stack did earlier this year. His letter cited a Bible verse stating that people who commit homosexual acts "deserved to die."

When public outrage followed his letter, spilling into the state and national media, Stack resigned as a SLCUSD teacher. In the heat of it, many community members demanded the school district fire Stack or take down the letter, but the SLCUSD defended SLO Expressions' right to publish it.

After a summer of reflection, school officials say they continue to stand by that approach.

"After that whole incident, we looked at how we handled it," SLCUSD Assistant Superintendent Ryan Pinkerton said. "It's good to go back—what was our district policy? Was it right? Was it wrong? It looks like we did handle it correctly."

Pinkerton said the new district policy, written by district staff and attorneys over the summer, is intended to make its expectations about appropriate religious expression "more prescriptive" and "understandable" to the school community.

First, the new policy broadly states that, "religious expression and activities in public schools involves a careful balancing of free speech rights and the right to free exercise of religion without promoting or establishing religion."

The policy then tackles 23 areas or venues for religious expression, ranging from student prayers, to the use of school facilities for religious purposes, to teaching about religion, the distribution of religious literature, and prayers at athletic contests.

School staff, when acting in their official capacity, "are prohibited from endorsing, soliciting, encouraging, or participating in religious expression or activities with students on campus or at school-sponsored events," one of the policies reads.

At athletic contests, sports team coaches "may not participate in or encourage prayer or other religious activities," another states.

Student religious groups have "the same right of access to school facilities" and "may distribute religious literature to other students on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other non-religious literature," according to the district policy. District employees distributing religious literature on campus or at school-sponsored activities, however, "shall be prohibited."

With respect to curriculum, information "must be presented in an objective manner that does not have the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion."

Pinkerton said the policies will be discussed and implemented at each school site with staff and teachers during the current school year, possibly in collaboration with a community task force.


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