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New Religious Rights Policy in Our Schools

If just a little over half of registered Democrats had voted in the Grants Pass School Board election we wouldn’t have a majority on the board that wants to disrupt the learning process for students, cast doubt on professional educators and make it possible for anyone to declare a religious exemption from anything they don’t want to hear in school. The Board, now dominated by people who don’t seem understand the First Amendment of the US Constitution, has changed the language in it’s long-standing program exemptions policy to say students “shall” instead of “may” be exempted from anything against their religion. This gives parents the upper hand in determining what offends their children in school. That means a student might never learn Shakespeare, Mark Twain or John Steinbeck existed. Parents could go through their child’s biology and history books and ask for exemptions from certain chapters, pull their children out of school every Tuesday because they say that’s their Sabbath, or insist their religion prohibits them from hearing certain words.

Board member Debbie Brownell did her homework regarding the “shall” vs “may” issue. She said the Oregon School Board Association reports it has had requests from the religious to allow their students to be exempt from large portions of entire courses, music from other countries, and topics relating to melting pot concepts. She said changing from “may” to “shall” could be burdensome to teachers trying to make sure a certain student is excused before something deemed offensive is discussed. It also takes away the district’s ability to deny a request. So parents who want to pull their student out of school to go on vacation could say it was a religious pilgrimage of some sort.

The rest of the Board didn’t need to have much of an excuse to vote for the change. All they needed to know is that they knew of parents who found some public-school offerings “an affront to their family culture” and wanted an option for them do something different. They actually had that option with the “may” word, according to Brownell, who said there hasn’t been a problem with it. However, this new Board majority wanted to make sure no teacher or school administrator would have the power to deny some kid who says he wants every Friday off to worship cave crickets out at the National Monument in Cave Junction the power to deny that request.

Without its right-wing majority, the Board would also not have voted to spend nearly $6,000 of taxpayer money to join some dubious school board association bent on infiltrating public education with propaganda. This is just a six month membership fee. If the current Board likes CSBO it will pay another bunch of money for another six months. Ask the teachers what they could have done with that money instead. The Community School Boards of Oregon (CSBO), which touts itself as “the voice of like-minded educational leaders,” is currently demanding the Oregon Department of Education withdraw its recently drafted standards because they object to the sex education section.

Democrats need to pay attention BEFORE elections, not after the damage is done. These GPSD Board members, all supported by the hard-right Josephine County Republican Party, are Dustin Smith, Chad Dybdahl, Nathan Seable and Joseph Smith. They told us who they were before the election. They will be the majority on the board until 2027, getting bolder with every opportunity they get to inject their religion into the public schools. Next they’ll be after the LGBTQ kids, sure as you know it. All Democrats can do now is show up to defend the First Amendment and diversity every time this kind of thing comes up on the agenda and make sure to VOTE them out at the first opportunity.