Marek Warszawski

Atheist group says Fresno police chaplains proselytize to schoolkids. I disagree

Fresno Police Chaplaincy helps kids with resiliency skills

John Edmonson, a volunteer with the Fresno Police Chaplaincy, talks about how the program teaches young students good character and resiliency in the face of life challenges. Edmonson reads to first-graders and chats with them at lunch as a way of
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John Edmonson, a volunteer with the Fresno Police Chaplaincy, talks about how the program teaches young students good character and resiliency in the face of life challenges. Edmonson reads to first-graders and chats with them at lunch as a way of

Sept. 6 update: A dispute between Fresno Unified School District, Fresno Police Department and an atheist group has seemingly been resolved through a simple name change – just like I suggested. In an Aug. 30 letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Superintendent Bob Nelson said the Resiliency in Student Education Mentorship Program will replace the School Chaplaincy Program. In a press release, the FFRF praised the district’s “prompt response to this issue.”

Are first-graders in the Fresno Unified School District learning important life lessons through a classroom reading partnership with the Fresno Police Chaplaincy?

Or are these 6- and 7-year-olds unwittingly being subjected to religious proselytizing and recruitment?

The answer to those questions likely depends on your perspective and beliefs. But either way, it’s a topic we’ll be hearing a lot more about after a national nonprofit dedicated to the separation of church and state sent a complaint letter to Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson over what it calls a “constitutional violation” occurring within the district.

At issue is the Resiliency in Student Education (RISE) program where Fresno Police Department chaplains make weekly visits to 42 classrooms throughout Fresno Unified for the purpose of reading children’s books to the students. Records show the district pays $65,000 annually for this service.

“It’s egregious – it’s just so obvious,” Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said by phone.

“It’s one thing to have the police come in and have a program for students. But to have a chaplain come in? No. This is very concerning and, frankly, unconstitutional.”

Fresno Unified’s Nelson, while mindful of his duties and responsibilities, does not share that perspective.

“Fundamentally I agree (with the FFRF). As educators we cannot either endorse or establish religion in our schools. That’s sacrosanct. We know that. Kids are impressionable, and we have to recognize that as adults,” Nelson said.

“That being said, the intent of the RISE program has always been secular in nature and the curriculum is secular in nature.”

Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

Federal law, as well as Fresno Unified policy on this topic, is clear. Section 6141.2 of the district’s board code prohibits religious proselytizing, recruitment, testimonials, the promotion of religion, or demonstrating a preference for one religious belief or sect over another by visitors on school premises.

Furthermore, visitors cannot announce religious events or encourage attendance. Nor may administrators and teachers allow “the active and direct distribution of religious or anti-religious materials.”

Since RISE began in 2011, has a police chaplain ever been accused of violating these directives?

“Never,” Nelson replied. “We’ve never had anyone express any degree of concern that people in the classrooms are engaging in anything religious, pseudo-religious or otherwise.”

I understand the FFRF’s alarm. Giving chaplains unique access to first-graders opens the door to proselytizing and religious influence. A slogan that reads “Ministry can’t always wait until Sunday” printed on a RISE promotional brochure certainly raised my eyebrows.

However, some of the issues raised in the complaint letter aren’t factual. For example, Fresno police chaplains don’t have to be Christian or religious, I’m told. Even atheists can apply. The only requirements are time (at least 5 hours per week during the school year) and passing an extensive background check.

Books read to first-graders aren’t religious

In addition, the children’s books read aloud by RISE volunteers aren’t in any way religious. The materials are selected to promote universally accepted character traits such as honesty, perseverance and treating others like you want to be treated.

And let’s be honest: There are many, many first-graders throughout Fresno Unified who aren’t being taught those valuable lessons at home.

In its complaint letter, the FFRF lifted a quote from the chaplaincy’s website in which a RISE volunteer states, “My prayer is God will continue to use me as a beacon of His light to the kiddos at Susan B. Anthony. God is able to take our ashes and turn them into something beautiful. I’m humbled and honored to be a chaplain to these children.”

To the FFRF, this is proof (or at least damning evidence) that proselytizing is occurring. I disagree. To me, this is a statement that reveals nothing more than someone’s personal beliefs. Nothing wrong with that.

Some readers may ask, “Why do we need an organization based in Wisconsin to keep tabs on what’s going on in Fresno?” Actually, we do.

When school board trustees at Chino Valley Unified School District (as well as Clovis Unified) began every meeting with a prayer, we needed the FFRF to fight that legal battle. Which they did – successfully.

When a New Mexico high school basketball coach reportedly held Bible study classes with his players and made them wear T-shirts that read, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” we needed the FFRF to step in.

Those are but two of dozens of examples. For as long as those in power try to impose their religious views on others in a public school or government setting, the FFRF is an invaluable ally. So, yes, we do need them.

Group tipped off by ‘a few’ complaints

FFRF attorney Chris Line, who wrote the letter addressed to Nelson, told me his organization was tipped off by “a few” public complaints. He then filed a public records request.

“The law is very clear: Public money cannot go to any programs with a Christian purpose,” Line said.

The $65,000, according to Nelson, goes entirely to curriculum mainly in the form of reading materials handed out to students.

I attempted to interview RISE program coordinator John Edmondson, a longtime Fresno Unified principal and teacher. However, my interview was squelched by Fresno Police Department brass.

Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

A few years ago the FFRF sent a similar complaint letter to the Turlock Unified School District over its partnership with the Turlock Chaplaincy. To resolve the matter, the term “character coaches” replaced chaplains.

Nelson said he is open to having that discussion with school board trustees as well as the Fresno PD. If RISE is truly a secular program and a simple name change is all it takes to prevent this dispute from winding up in court, there shouldn’t be any objections.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.