Religious Right Ruse Rejected

Why An Ohio Public School District Said Sorry, Charlie, To Chaplain

Correction:
An earlier edition of this story reported that David Plummer "gave lectures on an 'imminent military takeover' of the United States in the summer of 1997." That is untrue. Mr. Plummer has never given any lecture on an imminent military takeover of the United States. (In fact, the lectures in question were made by E. H. Jim Ammerman, another figure in this story.) Church & State strives for accuracy, and we regret the error. Further, Mr. Plummer insists that he has no affiliation with TV preacher Pat Robertson.

When the Rev. Owen Williams, head of the Brookville, Ohio, ministerial association in Brookville, Ohio, first heard about a proposal to have a public school chaplain in his area, he thought it might be a good idea.

The initiative, designed to create the first public school chaplaincy program anywhere in the United States, had been packaged as a well-intentioned effort to help local children.

"We were conditionally supportive of the concept when it first came out, thinking it might be good for kids to be able to talk to someone," said Williams, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church. "The ministerial association really got the hard sell because proponents of the plan were told by the school board that they had to get our approval before the plan would even be considered."

But as more information came to Williams' attention about the proposal and its proponents, he soon realized that it could pull his community into a constitutional quagmire. In fact, as research by Church & State now reveals, the effort may have been intended to do that intentionally, as part of the latest Religious Right scheme to inject religion into public schools.

The chaplaincy project in Brookville was the work of three people. The Rev. Howard Lee, a native of nearby Dayton, founded Public School Chaplains for America (PSCA), a group committed to placing chaplains in all public schools. He enlisted the assistance of Lee Behnken, an evangelical Christian musician and active volunteer at PSCA, to spearhead the fledgling organization's first effort. Behnken received assistance from the Rev. David Plummer, a former military chaplain and PSCA "chaplaincy consultant."

It was representatives from the PSCA who approached Brookville clergy for an endorsement of the school chaplaincy plan.

"The ministerial association raised a series of concerns with the idea," Williams said. "But we were told that the plan was perfectly legal and constitutional, and that they had checked with the ACLU and Americans United and that the groups didn't have a problem with it. That turned out to be untrue.

"They had already received letters of support from a number of churches in the area, so the ministerial association gave them a conditional letter of support," Williams continued. "It was being pushed at us hard and things were going so fast, we hardly had time to follow up on the things we were being told. Our letter was conditional on legal issues, accountability concerns, proper training and accreditation and backing from the community. It turned out that they failed on all four."

With support from local clergy, the PSCA approached Brookville school board members to consider the matter in more detail. The board scheduled a hearing for Oct. 22, and about 100 people showed up to talk about the issue.

What was intended to be an opportunity for public discussion, quickly turned into a religiously fired pep rally in support of the chaplaincy effort.

Behnken began the community meeting by leading those in attendance in a prayer "in the name of Jesus," and then proceeded to pitch the need for the program. Citing a perceived threat of violence in schools throughout the United States, Behnken suggested that a chaplaincy program would protect children. According to the Brookville Star, he assured the audience that "there's no problem with [the proposal] and the separation of church and state."

PSCA consultant Plummer told the crowd, "Chaplaincy is not about finding a sneaky way to get into school and preach, and it's not establishing a church on school ground. Chaplaincy is about providing a pastoral, friendly, helpful presence in schools....Like if someone says 'say a prayer for me,' a chaplain can do that."

Public reaction seemed favorable. A local PTA president supported the concept, telling the board, to enthusiastic applause, "We're so bent on being afraid [of lawsuits], that we don't want to do what's right for the kids."

Another woman announced, "We've been doing something in public schools for years that's not working. I think school chaplaincy is great and I don't care if it's a legal problem. I'm prepared to fight for it."

But ministerial association leader Williams was puzzled. "That original meeting was very peculiar," he told Church & State. "I've lived in the area for about five years, and a lot of the people there didn't look familiar. I talked with some of the people who were speaking to the board, and they weren't even from Brookville."

Williams also believes the hearing was skewed by crowd pressure. "There were some school teachers there who raised some concerns," he said, "but the audience was very rude to them. Speakers who approved of the plan heard claps and lots of 'Amen'. Speakers who criticized the plan were cut off and drowned out. It almost seemed orchestrated."

Concerned about the potential for a constitutional conflict, the board decided to create a committee to give the proposal further review. The nine-member panel included three school district officials, three representatives from the ministerial association and three representatives of the community, among them Behnken, the plan's chief sponsor.

Williams, one of the three religious leaders on the committee, decided to do some inquiries on his own.

"The more I checked on the things they told me, the more I realized things weren't the way we were told they were," Williams said, in an interview with Church & State. "Their 'facts' just weren't panning out. I checked with a number of people about the legal concerns, and every one of them said it was pushing the envelope too far and would be found unconstitutional because it was too far out of bounds. Worse, they promised us this was ecumenical. That means that it would be approved by all faiths and that wasn't the case either. We contacted one local Jewish group, and they were less than amused by the proposal."

The dynamics of the debate changed dramatically when Americans United for Separation of Church and State contacted the school district, after receiving complaints from concerned citizens in Brookville. In a Nov. 2 letter to the school, Americans United Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan called the proposal blatantly unconstitutional and advised that it would face a legal challenge if passed.

After Americans United's warning about an inevitable lawsuit, local news media also spoke out. A Dayton Daily News editorial column described the chaplaincy effort as "dangerous."

"Legislators and school board members should give speedy burials, with or without benefit of clergy, to all such schemes," the column observed. "They owe it to their country -- and, if they profess one, to their god. Such plans seem so sharply etched a violation of the First Amendment that the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State has indicated it will fight any attempt to establish one. So should we all."

As negative information continued to mount, the committee had a major shake-up.

"The more the ministerial association asked for paperwork from the PSCA, the more we heard excuses and never got anything," Williams said. "When I compiled my own research, I concluded that this was ridiculous. We were being led down a road and I didn't want any part of it."

On Dec. 13, the day before the final school board vote on the proposal, Williams resigned from the committee and the ministerial association withdrew its support.

Hours after Williams' resignation, another committee member released a report to the board concluding that the chaplaincy is "not the appropriate program for our district at this time."

The next day, board members voted to "indefinitely postpone" Behnken's plan. In a written statement, the board announced that "no further consideration of this proposal as presented to the board by community member Lee Behnken will take place." The document also explained that it was evident the plan would spark a lawsuit if passed, and that "the board's position has been that no district funds would be spent towards this program, including funds spent for legal defense."

But, while the chaplaincy scheme in Brookville was going down to defeat, its supporters were laying future plans.

In an interview with Church & State, Behnken said the PSCA's chaplaincy can pass constitutional muster and provide important services for students, despite the negative decision in Brookville. "[A chaplain] would be someone who could teach values and morals," he said. "A chaplain could teach abstinence and tell students not to steal or commit violence. It's a good idea that could happen anywhere."

But even leaders of the movement weren't sure how the plan would be implemented. Behnken wasn't sure, for example, how a school would select a chaplain or where the chaplain's office would be.

"They volunteer, they don't necessarily need an office," Behnken said. "They would just be available, they could perhaps sit in the cafeteria."

Behnken and the PSCA argue that other government agencies, such as military bases and prisons, have chaplains that have been ruled constitutional, and the school position would be filled by a volunteer so no public funds would be used.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn believes neither of these arguments are persuasive.

"Unlike prisoners or military personnel, where there's a 24-hour attendance requirement," Lynn said, "school-age children have a plethora of opportunities to receive spiritual counseling outside the school day.

"And whether the chaplain would receive public funds is beside the point," Lynn added. "By permitting a chaplain to serve in a public school, the school is allowing a recognized representative of the religious community unfettered access to children. This places the school's blessing on the activity, and this is exactly what the Supreme Court has forbidden."

Lynn points to the high court's 1948 McCollum v. Board of Education ruling, which prohibited educators from allowing outside persons to come into schools to offer religious teaching. While the details of the chaplaincy plan may remain unclear, Behnken's views on church and state are not. They straight from the Religious Right script.

"The founding fathers established the Constitution, and over 94 percent of it is directly from the Bible," Behnken said. "They never intended to take religion out of the government and out of the schools....Since the removal of prayer and the Bible from our schools, we've seen the deterioration of our families, teen pregnancies and violence has taken off. Now we're the most drug-addicted nation in the world. There's a correlation between the problems in our society and the Supreme Court rulings of the early 60s."

Comments like these and other statements from the plan's sponsors suggest that the school chaplaincy initiative may be little more than the latest crusade to circumvent and undermine Supreme Court rulings separating religion and public education.

In September of 1997, PSCA founder and director Howard Lee hosted the first-ever conference on public school chaplains. At the Dayton event, Lee announced that he had started Public School Chaplains for America as part of his effort to "bring God back into public schools."

In fact, information has become available suggesting the entire chaplaincy proposal in Brookville is part of a larger Religious Right legal stratagem.

Documents obtained by Church & State show that despite PSCA protests that the plan was harmless, its leaders were apparently anticipating a lawsuit all along. Study committee members were assured of the PSCA's contacts in the Religious Right and their willingness to assist in the chaplaincy plan's legal defense.

An internal proposal from the PSCA to committee members, written by consultant Plummer, explains that Brookville could be used as a test case at no cost to the city.

"Public School Chaplaincy for America is aware of a number of constitutional attorneys and pro-religious legal rights organizations who may be willing to lend assistance to the school systems [who adopt chaplaincy proposals] at no charge," Plummer's memo says. "PSCA is prepared to make a formal request of these pro-religious legal defense organizations when a school system indicates a willingness to 'recognize' a chaplain and set a precedent. Prior to actually setting the precedent, PSCA will obtain from said legal defense organization(s) a written commitment for assisting the school system's local legal counsel." [emphasis in the original]

While the memo is vague about which Religious Right legal groups would be volunteering their services, committee members were told the help would come from the legal department at TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University. In fact, a search of Regent's website reveals that PSCA's Plummer has been affiliated with the university, with an e-mail address at the school, though the specifics of his association are unclear.

"These documents point to the fact that, despite rhetoric and promises about the chaplaincy plan being harmless, PSCA leaders knew all along that they would force a lawsuit and they had Religious Right leaders to help wage their fight," Lynn said. "The pattern of deception is very troubling. This memo is asking a community to be a pawn in the Religious Right's game. Brookville obviously did the right thing by rejecting this reckless scheme."

Though the entire Brookville controversy may have the appearance of an isolated incident dealing with a hopeless proposal, it may actually be the beginning of a trend.

"This is the next maneuver in the Religious Right's incessant campaign to force religious activity into public schools," Lynn said. "States are already beginning to take up the concept."

The Nevada state legislature considered a statewide chaplaincy program in 1997. AB 620 was unsuccessful, but it remains an issue and has support from the ultra-right Independent American Party of Nevada.

Meanwhile, in Florida two ministers unveiled a chaplaincy plan in November. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Pastor Joseph Wright and the Rev. G. Vincent Lewis, president of the Tallahassee ministerial alliance, hope the measure will see action in the 1999 session of the state legislature.

In addition, a state assemblyman in New York will be introducing a plan of his own in the wake of the Mildred Rosario controversy, who was fired after leading her class in a Christian prayer. Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. (D-Soundview), son of a well-known Pentecostal minister in the Bronx, wants to empower the state Board of Education to establish a chaplaincy program for all public schools.

A growing number of Religious Right-oriented groups are working on this issue. For example, Students for Christ America (which has adopted "S4C" as a moniker) is actively pushing for public school chaplains. Describing itself as a "spirit-filled, student-led, Bible Club movement," S4C professes to be an "extension of the revolution" established by organizations like Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice and "See You at the Pole," an annual student prayer rally at public school flagpoles.

The Annapolis, Md.-based group's literature says its goal is "evangelizing" public schools through links between local churches, school Bible Clubs and school chaplains.

Also involved in the campaign is Chaplaincy Full Gospel Churches, an endorsing agency that qualifies chaplains on behalf of charismatic and Pentecostal churches and fellowships. Chaplain E. H. Jim Ammerman, a retired Army colonel, leads the Dallas, Texas-based group.

Ammerman is affiliated with TV preacher Robertson, formerly serving as a visiting professor of "institutional chaplaincy" at Robertson's Regent University. Ammerman gave lectures on an "imminent military takeover" of the United States in the summer of 1997. (He declined a Church & State request for an interview.)

So what's next for Public School Chaplaincy for America? Following Brookville's rejection of the plan, Behnken told the Dayton Daily News, "We will look at other alternatives for the kids on this issue without a First Amendment battle."

When asked to elaborate on these "other alternatives," Behnken told Church & State, "I don't know if I really want to talk about that. Look, we're just trying to meet the needs of our community. We just have a heart for young people. I think I'll plead the Fifth."

Other PSCA representatives were also unwilling to discuss their plans. The group's founder and director Howard Lee would not return phone calls requesting an interview, and PSCA consultant Plummer declined to speak to Church & State.

Brookville pastor Owen Williams said he was not surprised by their reticence, because "they still have other communities to try and go after." But Williams hopes the Brookville experience will provide a lesson for others.

"I've received quite an education through this process," Williams said. "They used our community and I know that we won't be the last one to be used. Other people need to know about this before their community is duped too."