FAIRBANKS — A speaker who visited several Fairbanks public schools may have run afoul of federal law last week when he handed out religious ministry material to students during at least one all-school assembly.
The speaker, Randy Rich, visited most of the secondary schools in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. His talk was titled “Dare to Dream” and focused on conceiving and achieving life goals.
The speech itself avoided adhering to a specifically religious message, but some teachers expressed concern after Rich, following his speech, offered a ministry pamphlet to students that he reportedly billed as his football card from his time playing in the National Football League.
“The Bible says that ‘He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 1:6). If you want to know more about the message of God’s love and saving grace, please contact me,” the card states.
Concerns were initially raised by at least one teacher before Rich’s assembly had begun at Ryan Middle School. John Yordy, a teacher at Ryan, responded to an email about the assembly between his colleagues and building administrators stating his concern that the person coordinating Rich’s talk had the title of “Ministry Relations Coordinator” for K-Love Air1, a Christian Radio organization with an affiliate station in Fairbanks.
Ryan Middle School Principal Heather Stewart responded by email to Yordy and other teachers that her understanding was that the assembly was simply motivational in scope, not religious. Yordy provided the email to the News-Miner.
“Let’s see what the assembly holds — we might all be surprised,” Stewart wrote in the email.
After the assembly, Yordy’s concerns worsened, he said.
“This is a guy soliciting 12-year-olds to call him and speak about God’s saving grace. I’m sorry — this does not belong in a public school,” Yordy said in a phone interview. “I think this is a public concern … I think we’ve violated the Constitution.”
The News-Miner reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska for comment, and, after several days of looking into the material Rich had presented and speaking with Yordy, lawyers for the organization expressed concern.
“It clearly violates the First Amendment separation of church and state,” ACLU Alaska Director Joshua Decker said. “This school (Ryan Middle) knew ahead of time that the presentation was from a religious organization that engaged in proselytization, and it decided to go ahead with it anyway at a school-sponsored, mandatory assembly, and as such it is responsible for the presentation’s unconstitutional religious message.”
Decker said ACLU Alaska expects the school to apologize to students, parents, faculty and staff and to revamp its policies to make sure such a violation does not occur again. He said the ACLU plans to contact the district in the next few weeks.
Stewart said she believes Rich spoke at most of the district’s secondary schools.
School district administrators directed comment about the Ryan assembly to Stewart, who said she hasn’t heard any complaints from parents or students but that she believes what Rich did at the school was in a “dark gray area.”
Yordy agreed that there might not be many complaints this time but that, had the speaker been from a Muslim group or an atheist group, the public outcry would have been much different.
Stewart said, for herself as a parent, she took it as an opportunity to speak to her own children about religion, but as a principal said she could see how it might upset some people.
According to Stewart, speakers like Rich have to go through a screening process to get access to the school. She said the process is the same for all schools and is outlined by guidance from the district’s downtown office.
“Even the best screening process in place, if somebody comes in at the last minute and slips in a piece of paper that wasn’t approved, you can’t control for all variables,” she said.
But Yordy and the ACLU say the review process itself needs a review if something like this can happen so easily.
Stewart claimed that, had she known what would happen at the assembly, she wouldn’t have allowed Rich to hand out the cards.
“I think all the schools, mine included, would have made a different decision to allow him to hand those out,” she said.
Attempts to reach K-Love Air 1 by phone and email were unsuccessful.
Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMschools.