Civil RightsFirst AmendmentFreedom of Speech and PressLitigationReligious Freedom

Beth Sloan’s Letter re: Religious Liberty in Powhatan – 11/22/1999

Beth’s Letter

November 22, 1999

 

To Whom It May Concern,

 

I have recently been in the news because of the lawsuit I brought against my principal, Mr. Rick Cole. Many things have been said about Fellowship of Christian Athletes that are not true some of which the media reported. Let me tell what happened so you can decide for yourself.

 

FCA began in Powhatan High School three years ago when I was a sophomore. A girl moved into PHS from a school that had FCA, and she talked to me and other friends about starting FCA. The school requires each club have a sponsor to serve an adult supervisor to maintain order. We, therefore, went to my mother, Grace Sloan who is an instructional aid at my school, and asked her to become our sponsor all in accordance with the school’s policy and procedures. We began meeting immediately with the stated goals of Christian fellowship, outreach and growth (“FOG”) and 8-10 members. Now, FCA has over 40 members and has become a productive part of PHS student life.

 

One problem FCA has faced all three years is the school administration will not allow us to announce prayer meetings such as “Meet You at the Pole” and a prayer meeting for a faculty member’s baby who was having open heart surgery. Mr. Cole told us we could not announce these events because they were prayer meetings. Never did he say that our requests were rejected or denied because they were not made by students. In fact the requests have always originated from the students. The United States Constitution prohibits our school from restricting our speech and from prohibiting the free exercise of our religion. The provision of the United States Constitution which requires the separation of church and state requires the school to be neutral when it comes to religion. In other words, under the United States Constitution the school must treat religious and non-religious clubs equally. Treating a religious club with hostility is not neutral. Mr. Cole violated the first Amendment to the United States Constitution. Our club makes announcements like any other club, however, any time one of our announcements referred to prayer, it was censored.

 

Last year, the leadership team wrote a description of the club to go into the student club booklet that describes all clubs. That publication is published by the Student Association. It is a student publication. In that description, we submitted our theme verse, Ephesians 5:1-2 “Therefore, be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” Before publication, Mr. Cole reviewed it. When the club booklet came out, the verse was no longer in our description. Mr. Cole censored it because of the religious viewpoint. This was unconstitutional.

 

This fall the leadership team decided to have a guest speaker. Other clubs have guest speakers; thus, we saw nothing wrong with inviting a pastor to our club meeting. I suggested Mark Kuiper, a youth pastor from Charlottesville and friend of mine. I have attended his youth meetings before and heard him speak. Because the school requires all speakers be approved, we made the request to the school on the form and in the procedure the school required. The request was given to the club’s sponsor to be forwarded up the administration’s bureaucracy on the form the school required to be completed. The request originated and has always been the request of the students in the club.

 

On November 2 or 3, Mrs. Funn, the assistant principal and the school’s club coordinator, told my mother that Mr. Cole had denied the request because “the speaker was religious.” My mother told Mrs. Funn that was illegal and asked if Mr. Cole would reconsider. She even provided a publication clearly outlining the law which guarantees our club its First Amendment rights and requires schools to treat our club just like non-religious clubs. Mrs. Funn said she would talk to him.

 

On November 10, my mother went to Mrs. Funn and asked her if Mr. Cole had made a decision. Mrs. Funn told her she also knew having the speaker was legal, but the decision was Mr. Cole’s.

 

After almost a month of waiting, on Monday, November 15, three days before our meeting, we still had not heard whether Mr. Cole had changed the prohibition against our guest speaker. I spoke with my mother and told her that I needed to let our speaker know whether he would be permitted to come or not. Upon my request, my mother went to Mr. Cole’s office and relayed my request for an answer to our request for reconsideration. Mr. Cole was antagonistic to her and told her several times he would not allow a “Christian speaker.” He stated that he did not want someone proselytizing students. My mother told him that she did not believe a Christian pastor speaking to a Christian club would be proselytizing and told him that she believed denying club’s request for an outside speaker simply because he was a Christian was illegal.

 

In response, Mr. Cole threatened our club telling my mother that if the matter was pressed further he might not allow FCA to meet. He also said FCA would no longer be allowed to put up posters in the halls announcing outside school meetings.

 

The next day, my dad called Tom Roberts, a friend of his who is a civil rights lawyer and a Christian. He was not able to meet with us until 6:00 p.m. that evening. We met with him at his home office. Because of the urgency of the situation together with the important liberties at stake and the blatant Constitutional violations, Mr. Roberts drafted the federal complaint and the request for an emergency hearing to be filed the next morning.

 

Although Mr. Roberts spoke with the school’s attorney before the 11:00 hearing, it was not until the Mr. Cole stood in front of the federal judge that permission was actually given to both have the outside speaker and to have the right to announce our club’s activities like other clubs. During the hearing, the school denied that it had ever restricted our speech or denied us access to make announcements. The school claimed that the request was turned down because the request had not been made by students. These representations were false.

 

Since Mr. Cole and the school backed down and gave permission for our speaker and access to the PA system, there was no longer a need for an emergency hearing and order from the court. The federal judge stated that if the school changed its mind, he would be available for us to return the next morning.

 

After the 11 a.m. court hearing, I was appalled at the events which took place with the news media. I heard the other side make statements that were not true. Mr. Cole said he never denied the request when we have, in his own handwriting, a note on the speaker request form saying “I cannot approve this.” Moreover, he said this was a big misunderstanding and that permission had been denied because the request was not from a student. The request was always by the students of FCA.

 

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution restrains tyrannical and despotic governments stating it “…shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” (The Fourteenth Amendment applies this to states.)

 

Additionally, Article 16 of the Bill of Rights of the Virginia Constitution says “religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of their conscience.”

 

The students of Powhatan High School need FCA.

 

Beth Sloan
Age 17
Senior, Powhatan High School