VA. Pagans Advertise Through Falwell-secured School ‘Backpack Mail’

A Pagan group in Albemarle County, Va., was recently given permission to advertise its multi-cultural holiday program to public school children – and they have the Rev. Jerry Falwell to thank for it.

The dispute started last summer when Gabriel and Joshua Rakoski, twins who attend Hollymead Elementary School, sought permission to distribute fliers about their church’s Vacation Bible School to their peers via “backpack mail.” Many public schools use special folders placed in student backpacks to distribute notices about school events, and sometimes extra-curricular activities, to parents.

School officials originally denied the request from the twins’ father, Ray Rakoski, citing a school policy barring “distribution of literature that is for partisan, sectarian, religious or political purposes.”

A Charlottesville weekly newspaper, The Hook, reported that Rakoski “sicced the Liberty Counsel on the county,” and the policy was soon revised to allow religious groups to use the backpack mail system. Liberty Counsel is a Religious Right legal group founded by Mathew Staver and now affiliated with Falwell.

It wasn’t long before other religious groups decided to take advantage of the newly opened forum. A group of Pagans who attend Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, a Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Charlottesville, created a one-page flier advertising a Dec. 9 event celebrating the December holidays with a Pagan twist. They submitted it to the public school and had it distributed through the backpack system.

“Have you ever wondered what ‘Holidays’ refers to?” read the flier. “Everyone knows about Christmas – but what else are people celebrating in December? Why do we celebrate the way we do?”

The flier invited people to “an educational program for children of all ages (and their adults), where we’ll explore the traditions of December and their origins, followed by a Pagan ritual to celebrate Yule.”

It concluded, “Come for one or both parts and bring your curiosity.”

A local parent who was involved in the effort later explained to Americans United that it was done partly to educate the community about the principle of fair play. Many members of the congregation are strong supporters of church-state separation who don’t believe public schools should promote any religion. But they were also unwilling to cede the field to Falwell and his fundamentalist allies. Falwell opened the backpack forum, and the Pagans were determined to secure equal time.

The reaction from Christian conservatives in the area was predictable. They wanted access to the schools for their religion but not others.

Jeff Riddle, pastor of Jefferson Park Baptist Church in Charlottesville, wrote on his personal blog, “This kind of note adds weight to the argument that it is high time for Christians to leave public schools for reasonable alternatives (homeschooling and private Christian schools).”

Another conservative Christian blogger in the county complained about finding the Pagan flier in her child’s folder. Apparently unaware of Falwell’s role in bringing it about, the blogger who goes by the name Cathy, noted disclaimer language at the bottom of the flier stating that the event is not connected to the school and wrote, “They [the school officials] aren’t endorsing or sponsoring this? Then it shouldn’t have been included in the Friday folders. The Friday folders have never been used for any thing other than school work and school board and/or County sanctioned/sponsored programs.”

She then fumed that a “pagan ritual” is “an educational experience my children don’t need.”

Parents in the county have asked Americans United to help the school system draft a new policy governing distribution of religious fliers. That task may be complicated by an opinion from the  4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Ruling in a case from Montgomery County, Md., the appellate court struck down a policy giving school officials unilateral ability to exclude certain private groups from the backpack system.