The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana has sent a letter to leaders at Billings School District 2 asking them why they are holding an all-district back-to-school staff meeting at a church.
“The district had a lot of different options,” said Niki Zupanic, public policy director for ACLU of Montana and the author of the letter.
District Superintendent Keith Beeman defended meeting at Faith Chapel Church on the West End, saying the sound system, seating, refreshments and other accommodations fit the needs of the district.
“I personally visited the auditorium; it’s a very professional setting,” he said. “That is a venue that is more conducive to what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The intent of the gathering is to focus teachers and staff members on the start of school and get them excited for the coming year. A gathering in one of the school’s gyms would have forced staff to sit on folding chairs or bleachers, conditions not conducive to long meetings.
“One-hundred percent of all our energy should be focused on getting our folks ready for the school year,” Beeman said. “We are in no way promoting or endorsing any particular religion.”
At issue for the ACLU of Montana is that district leaders, when choosing the location, did not make the gathering optional for those who felt uncomfortable sitting down for what is essentially a staff meeting in a church.
“The one thing we were asking for (was) that the district offer another option,” Zupanic said.
Beeman said the district has given teachers the option to take a leave of absence to sit out the meeting. As of Monday afternoon, three teachers had done so.
But the move wasn’t enough for ACLU leaders.
“We’re disappointed with that,” Zupanic said.
She argued that teachers should have the option of sitting out the meeting without having to use personal leave — an allowance the district made last year.
SD2 leaders choose to hold their staff meeting at Faith Chapel Church for the first time last year.
“I approached Jack (Copps, then SD2 superintendent) and told him there are some real issues here,” said Jeff Greenfield, president of the Billings Education Association, the district’s teachers union.
At the time, there were teachers uncomfortable with meeting at the church, so they were given permission to work that day in their classrooms.
“Keith (Beeman) didn’t see it that way,” Greenfield said.
Beeman said his hope was to get all teachers together and create a sense of unity.
“This is an opportunity for us to connect as a team,” he said.
But Greenfield said that, as union president, his chief concern has to be the comfort of his members.
Zupanic said laws regarding public entities and their use of areas of worship are far from clear cut.
“The line is fuzzy,” she said. “It really is a case-by-case determination. It’s not always inappropriate.”
For example, a few of SD2’s schools have emergency evacuation plans that call for staff and students to meet at a nearby church should some calamity befall the school.
“A building is brick and mortar,” Beeman said. “What we do inside the building gives it purpose.”
However, for Zupanic and the teachers who complained, the sticking point is that the meeting is mandatory and that the district could have held it elsewhere.
“It shows a lack of respect for the teacher,” she said.
The ACLU of Montana is requesting that the district provide it with copies of communication, invoices and any other documents associated with the presentation of the staff meeting at the church in 2009 and 2010.
“I intend to respond, to honor that request,” Beeman said.
Contact Rob Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1231.