Earlier this year Springboro Ohio School Board members Jim Rigano and Kelly Kohls proposed controversial school policy changes that would intentionally introduce religion into the city’s classrooms. Despite heavy push-back from the community and educators, as well as external groups like the ACLU, School Board members are planning to push forward with their agenda with the legal assistance of a far-right Christian group out of Texas.
In early April, Rigano distributed proposed changes to Springboro School Board Policy 8800 (Patriotic Observances) and Policy 2240 (Controversial Issues). The full text of the changes can be seen here: 8800, 2240.
Rigano’s changes to 8800 would force Springboro schools to teach courses on the US Constitution using instruction materials provided by specified right-wing, religiously-affiliated groups like the Institute on the Constitution. It would force schools to prominently display the phrases “In God We Trust” and “With God, All Things Are Possible” in auditoriums and cafeterias. And it specifies that time should be allowed for prayer in schools, while encouraging teachers to discuss the influence of religion on historical events and to participate in discussions about religion with students.
The original goal of Policy 2240 was to ensure classroom discussions about controversial issues like religion and sex education were fair and balanced and conducted in the “spirit of scholarly inquiry”. Rigano attempts to hijack this policy to promote his own right-wing political agenda.
Rigano adds creationism to the list of “controversial issues”. He adds “pro-life/abortion”, he adds “contraception/abstinence”, “gun rights” and “global warming and climate change”. He even adds “UN Agenda 21 and sustainable development” – a favorite topic of Glenn Beck and other paranoid, xenophobic Tea Partiers everywhere.
With the proposed changes in place, any discussion of evolution in science class would have to include a section on creationism. Any time students learn about the weather, they also have to be informed that some people think climate change is a liberal hoax. Any time property rights are discussed, the teacher has to mention that some foreign troops with blue UN helmets are going to seize your backyard and turn it into a wetland sanctuary for some rare aquatic salamander.
Not surprisingly, many in the community were not happy about the proposed changes. And neither was the ACLU. The organization’s legal director sent a letter to Springboro School Board members expressing his concerns over the proposed policy changes which he claimed would result in the unconstitutional teaching of religion in Springboro schools.
Records obtained by Plunderbund show that, shortly after receiving the letter, Rigano began looking for his own lawyers.
Rigano’s first attempt at lawyering up appears to have been prompted by a call from John Freshwater, the Mount Vernon science teacher made infamous for burning Christian crosses on to the arms of his students. Freshwater, still in the middle of an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court over his firing, reached out to Rigano to recommend his own attorney, Rita Dunaway of the right-wing Rutherford Institute. (See Panda’s Thumb for full coverage of the Freshwater case.)
Rigano emailed Dunaway (full text of email here) asking for legal advice on the policy changes. In the email, Rigano admits that “one goal of our revised policy is to require science teachers to teach all sides of the evolution theory, including gaps and contrary science”. He also admits that the changes aim “to make clear that teaching religion and religous (sic) motivation in a historical context is expressly permitted.”
But the board decided to use the services of different far-right, Christian organization, the Liberty Institute, to help them push through their policies. According to their website, the Liberty Institute is “focused solely on protecting and restoring religious liberty in the United States.”
At the next school board meeting, scheduled for August 8th, board members will be asked to approve an agreement with the Institute. The engagement letter (available here) states that the Liberty Institute will provide “pro bono legal representation on matters in the public interest” for the school board – specifically on the topics in Rigano’s religiously-oriented policy changes.
The Liberty Institute is also serving as legal counsel for the Jackson, Ohio school district in a case over a painting of Jesus that was hanging in a school cafeteria.
It’s sad that a few school board members want to impose their own religious beliefs on the students of Springboro. Even worse that they will be aided in that fight by a national organization and a team of lawyers who see Springboro as a tool for pushing their own hard-right agenda.
But the news isn’t all bad.
On July 2nd, a group of nearly 100 graduates of Springboro schools signed a petition urging board members to stop pushing their religious and ideological agenda on to Springboro’s children. “You are not elected to force your own opinions. Your offices exist—as do all public positions—to represent the needs of your constituents,” write the petitioners. “The needs of our students are not served by your choices. Neither are the wishes of our parents. And your decisions—and the way in which you have made and defended several of them—reflect poorly on all of us, from the youngest preschooler to the oldest citizen.”
The online version of the petition has nearly 600 signatures.
Another reason for Springboro families to be hopeful: Board President Kelly Kohls would have been up for reelection in November but, according to the Warren County Board of Elections, she failed to file her petition by today’s deadline.