SC Official Defends School's Field Trip to Christian Environmental Center After Parent's Complaint

(Screenshot: YouTube / PorterGaudCyclones)

South Carolina has defended an elementary school's choice of holding a three-day field trip at a Christian outdoor education center after a parent complained and grabbed the attention of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Island Packet reports that at least one parent has voiced displeasure with the fact that Hilton Head Island Elementary School will be sending fifth grade students on a three-day field trip to the Barrier Island Environmental Education Center in Seabrook Island, which is operated by a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina called St. Christopher's Camp and Conference Center.

According to the center's website, it is located on over 314 acres of beach and first opened as a summer camp for disadvantaged boys well over seven decades ago. The center now runs a Christian summer camp and provides environmental-based outdoor education and classes to students during the school year.

According to the newspaper, Hilton Head Island Elementary sent permission slips home on Sept. 22, asking parents for their permission for students to go to the Barrier Island Environmental Center for the three-day stay this fall.

"Going to camp is optional, although we think your child will benefit immensely from this experience," the school's permission slip states.

The children who don't go on the trip with their classmates will have the alternative of learning similar things about nature during a trip to the Coastal Discovery Museum during the same week.

However, Jewish parent Elizabeth Greenberg told The Island Packet that she was alarmed by a Barrier Island Environmental Education Program promotional video that was posted to YouTube showing one employee describing non-Christian students as "unchurched." The video has since been removed from YouTube.

"One of the most significant things about this ministry — and I call it a ministry, because it truly is — is that it gives us the opportunity to impact the lives of so many children to be and live in a Christian environment among a staff who loves Jesus and who loves kids and even if they don't have the chance to talk about it, it's evident in how they simply live their lives," the Rev. Bob Lawrence, the camp's executive director, was quoted as saying in the video.

Greenberg explained that she was "outraged" and "nauseous" as she watched the video.

"It got worse and worse," she said.

Despite the outrage from Greenberg, a South Carolina Department of Education official defended the school's selection of the Barrier Island Environmental Program for the school's outdoor field trip.

Deputy State Superintendent Cathy Hazelwood told The Island Packet that she had seen the center's promotional video. But after she notified the state's Title I Office, it was determined that "this is ultimately a local school district decision."

"If staff proselytizes the public school students, then we have a problem," Hazelwood reportedly wrote in an email. "Based on the information provided on its website, St. Christopher's Camp appreciates the distinction between providing its barrier island program to public school students and to private school students."

Beaufort County School District spokesman James Foster told The Island Packet that the school plans to discuss the field trip in greater detail with parents after Greenberg's complaint.

"And the school has had conversations with the camp and made clear what is permissible with parochial school students isn't with public," Foster said.

According to the center's website, it has provided public and private school students from kindergarten to 12th grade with nature education since 1980 and over 8,000 children go to the center each year. The center offers a total of 40 different classes.

Lawrence told The Island Packet that about 95 percent of the students that come there on field trips are from secular schools. He further stated that the education center incorporates state science standards in its lessons.

"If they see this as a ministry and an opportunity to reach out to 'unchurched' children, that's a problem," South Carolina ACLU legal Director Susan Dunn told The Island Packet, adding that its limitations on hiring could be a legal problem.

According to a Barrier Island Education program job posting on its website, the center seeks to hire "conservative evangelical Christian Naturalists." The posting adds that "a strong committed love for Jesus is of utmost importance."

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