Superintendent Larry Nyland issued new guidelines last week that limit how much volunteers can discuss religion with students.
He decided to consult a lawyer for advice on the issue after a mother complained in March that a 19-year-old volunteer at Totem Middle School had used MySpace to offer her 11-year-old daughter a ride to church. The invitation upset the mom, Rianne Olver, and sparked a controversy between advocates for the separation of church and state and those who believed church volunteers were being unfairly criticized.
Nyland decided to add a new section to the district's volunteer handbook to outline what volunteers can and can't say to kids about religion. Previously, the issue wasn't mentioned in the handbook, and many volunteers were under the impression that if a student asked them about religion, they could say whatever they wanted about their faith.
Now the handbook instructs volunteers to "be neutral on matters of religion and not to promote religious or political viewpoints in interacting with students."
If students ask volunteers about their faith, they may respond briefly, but cannot proselytize, invite them to events or ask for their contact information.
"You're not prohibited from responding, but you may not promote your views," Nyland said. "If somebody asks me where I go to church, I can answer the question. It doesn't give me an open door to tell a student you too should do whatever."
A few days after Olver complained about the MySpace message from a Turning Point Church member, the church's pastor pulled more than a dozen volunteers out of Marysville schools. The volunteers helped monitor students during lunch in a few Marysville Schools, and often spent time chatting with kids.
In August, the school district plans to train volunteers from churches on the new religion policy and welcome them back in schools. Turning Point volunteers plan to return to schools after the training, pastor Mike Villamor said.
"Our goal is to be a benefit to the community," he said. "We highly value what the teachers do and understand that they have a lot more work than they're able to do on their own. We want to be an asset."
Church interns and staff have never intended to turn the school into an evangelism project, he said. But if students want to find out more about the church, he said he hopes they'll be free to do so on their own.
Villamor said the new school policy is a "fair and healthy approach to allowing people, including Christians, to get on campus and be an asset."
Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292, email@example.com.
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