A public school in North Carolina stirred controversy after it removed Bible verses printed on the back of student planners that a local Baptist church paid thousands of dollars to have printed to give out to students for the 2020-'21 school year.
The school district said it had no choice but to remove the verses because of the “separation between church and state.”
Sulphur Springs Baptist Church in Hiddenite spent more than $2,000 printing planners for students at East Alexander Middle School. Originally, the planners featured two Bible verses on the lower part of the back covers.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Sulphur Springs Baptist Associate Pastor of Youth and Children James Safrit explained that he decided to print the planners after speaking with EAMS Principal Kristie Love earlier this summer.
Safrit said he always contacts the school, which is located near his church, at the beginning of the year to “ask them if there’s anything that we can do to help them.”
“I called the middle school, talked to the principal, and she had a couple of requests … for the school,” he said. She requested “flash drives for every student to transport work back and forth” as well as the planners.
Regarding the planners, Safrit maintained that Love told him that “we could do whatever we wanted because we were providing them.”
Printed on the back covers were the words of Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) and Jeremiah 29:11, where the Lord shares “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
“I didn’t ask her if we could do a verse because at the time, we weren’t even thinking about putting a verse on there,” he explained.
When Safrit and the church decided to put Bible verses on the back cover of the planners, he didn't think there would be “any impact.”
“It wasn’t a mandatory gift for every kid. It was just provided if they wanted it,” the youth pastor said.
But before distributing the planners to students, school personnel cut out the Bible verses, leaving a portion of the back covers missing.
“She didn’t ask for a proof or anything to see what it looked like,” Safrit added. “In hindsight, I probably should have let her look at it” before the planners were printed.
Alexander County Schools defended its decision to remove the Bible verses from the student planners.
“It is an individual student’s right to share their beliefs — religious or otherwise, but not the public school’s role to indoctrinate them with any religious teachings,” the school district said in a statement to local media outlets.
In an interview with CBS News affiliate WBTV, Alexander County Schools Executive Director Alisha Cloer said “separation between church and state” prevented the school from distributing the planners with the Bible verses on them.
“We can’t break the law,” Cloer said.
The decision comes as national secular legal organizations like Freedom From Religion Foundation and others have regularly threatened schools and government entities with lawsuits over perceived endorsements of religion.
Sulphur Springs Baptist Church responded to the removal of the Bible verses in a statement on its Facebook page.
“As a church we understood we could provide planners for EAMS and could print our logo and an uplifting message,” the statement reads. “We realize there was a misunderstanding on our part as well as on Principal Love’s part. We had no intentions of hurting our relationship with EAMS by putting the 2 Bible verses on the back of the planner.”
“Sulphur Springs Baptist Church and EAMS are on the same team helping our communities in whatever way we can,” the statement continued. “We love Alexander County and the EAMS community.”
Safrit told CP that he's eager to put the misunderstanding behind them and maintain “a really good working relationship with the school.”
As part of this relationship, Sulphur Springs Baptist Church also hosts a tutoring ministry for EAMS students.
“We’ve been doing this for about a year-and-a-half now,” the pastor explained. “And so last year, we averaged about 50 kids from the school.”
In a subsequent Facebook post, the church announced that it would be resuming its tutoring ministry in two weeks. The ministry enables EAMS students to access “help with homework” and “fast reliable internet” every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
In addition to maintaining a relationship with the middle school, Sulphur Springs Baptist Church has also worked with the local elementary school.
“Every year I try to go to our local elementary school and middle school because they’re right next to our church, close by in proximity,” Safrit said.
“Myself, as well as two other churches, provided all the school supplies for the local elementary school so none of the parents had to buy anything,” he said. “As a church and as churches, we were looking at ways that we could help out in our community.”
In the past, public schools have faced lawsuits from secular and atheist legal groups over the presence of religious displays on school grounds as those organizations contend that such displays violate the Establishment clause of the First Amendment.
In 2014, a school in West Virginia painted over a Bible verse that was displayed on the walls of its gymnasium after receiving a complaint letter threatening a potential lawsuit from the Wisconsin-based FFRF.
In 2017, an Indiana school district secretary was forced to remove a Bible citation from her email signature after FFRF sent a complaint letter demanding its removal.
Earlier that year, A New Mexico public school painted over a mural that featured an inspirational verse from 'Hebrews 6:19” after a demand letter from FFRF.
In 2012, a Rhode Island high school was forced to remove a prayer banner after a student at the school filed a joint complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union. The banner was later replaced by a secular mural.