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Religion in Lebanon Schools

Are Lebanon (R-3) Schools Promoting Christianity? Part One

There is a famous song that proclaims the holiday season to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” This is, however, a rather subjective claim. For many nonbelievers and secular-minded people, the winter holiday season is less the hap-happiest season of all and more the season of discontent, irritation, and obnoxious, eye-roll inducing religious platitudes.

Nowhere can this season become more frustrating than in the public schools of small-town, rural America. While it will come as little surprise that many public schools in the Bible Belt toe the line between appropriate and inappropriate during their “Christmas” programs, here in Missouri perhaps no school district is as flagrant an offender as the Lebanon R-3 district.

Last year, the Lebanon R-3 district was forced to issue an apology after Lebanon High School Principal Kevin Lowery proselytized during his address to the graduating class of 2014. I say forced because without video of the incident sparking outrage, it seems unlikely the district would have acknowledged the incident at all.

Mr. Lowery’s pulpit-worthy tirade made national headlines in 2014 and sparked a heated debate about the place of religion in our public schools. In the midst of that argument, it is easy to forget that there are actual parents and children that have to deal with the sort of nonsense spewed by school officials like Kevin Lowery. Only a few months after Mr. Lowery’s rant and the R-3 district’s so-called apology, Rachel Rothwell, whose daughter attends Esther Elementary, had to gear up for her own fight with the school.

During the 2014 holiday season (which the Lebanon District refers to as Christmas on their district calendar and, in a fact telling in of itself, the kids also get an “Easter Break” for Good Friday) Mrs. Rothwell requested a list of the programing that her then kindergartener would be singing during the school’s “Christmas” program. “I initially contacted the music teacher last year to request a list of songs that were being practiced for the Holiday program,” Rothwell told me, “I did this after my daughter asked me what a virgin is and questioned me a little more about Jesus, Mary, and Church.”

Rothwell’s request for a list of programming was met with a tirade from the school’s music teacher, Mr. Brenton (known as Mr. B).

In his email – obtained by me from Rothwell – Mr. B rants that he is well within his rights “to select age appropriate songs for children to sing.” He then lists a few standard holiday songs that one would expect kindergarteners to sing – Jingle Bells, Over the River and Through the Woods, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, etc. – but then the list begins to devolve into some extremely odd choices. According to Mr. B, the children sang Feliz Navidad as a way to include ESL students (the fact that it is assumed an ESL student’s first language is Spanish is interesting, to say the least). The email states, “’Maliguyoung Pasco’ is a Hawaiian Christmas song, which is also cross cultural.” Mr. B’s attempt at being multicultural is quite comical, especially when one considers that Maliguyoung Pasco is actually spelled Maligayoung Pasko and is Tagalog for Merry Christmas. For those not aware, Tagalog is the language of the Philippines, not Hawaii. If you are going to teach children to be multicultural, it is perhaps best to get your own facts straight first.

Mrs. Rothwell’s daughter’s question about virgins stemmed from the song The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy, which Mr. B described as “a Negro Spiritual” that “celebrates the rich heritage of the black population and history of our country.”

If you are beginning to question the appropriate nature of last year’s program, good on you. However, I’m not done just yet.

The children sang Away in A Manger because, according to Mr. B, “Jesus was born in a manger in Israel. It is an historical fact.” He was sure to note in his diatribe, “I do not preach Jesus at the children.” Methinks he doth protest too much.

It should have occurred to you by now that every song selected by Mr. B is about Christmas. To avoid this nail-in-the-coffin, Mr. B was sure to add in the song Dreidel; a song he described as “a cute song about a Jewish toy.”

“This song is also cross cultural,” wrote Mr. B, “an opportunity to song {sic} a song from another country and another set of beliefs.” There is actually a deep religious significance to the dreidel in connection with the Jewish faith (it stems from being persecuted by the Seleucids), and it is slightly more than just a “cute Jewish toy.” Also, the song in question was actually written by two Jews from New York named Samuel Grossman and S.E. Goldfarb. Granted, New York may seem like “a different country,” but it is in fact part of the United States.

To her credit (the school deserves none, in my opinion), Mrs. Rothwell was able to get The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy removed from the holiday program after contacting the Superintendent of the R-3 district, Duane Widhalm. However, the school’s combative and dismissive attitude leaves lingering ethical questions about what is going on in Lebanon. Mrs. Rothwell should not have had to fight so tirelessly to get a song about virgin births removed from a set-list for kindergartners; only religious faith – or fanaticism – can possibly explain how anyone thought that was a good idea to begin with.

Just as disturbing as the religious motivations of the school’s officials in their program choices is their solution to Mrs. Rothwell’s concerns. On multiple occasions Mr. B, the Principal, and the teacher suggested excluding Mrs. Rothwell’s child from programming or classroom activities. The teacher, who was reading the children various Christmas books but could not recall which ones when questioned by Rothwell, suggested that, “If you [Mrs. Rothwell] have a concern about any religious content at school, please make sure that,( in the future), teachers know at the beginning of the year. Then, the teacher will make sure that she does not take part in or is not asked to participate in anything ‘religious based’.” I take the words religious based being in quotes to be a wink and a nudge. Also, I’m confused as to why Mrs. Rothwell is the one that needs to be more proactive in making sure the school does its job correctly. A related aside: did the Kindergarten teacher not include the Christmas books in her lesson plans? That seems odd, yet convenient.

Furthering Mrs. Rothwell’s troubles (not to mention those of her young daughter), the school presented the children with religious-themed coloring books. “I requested that this not be part of the classroom activity and was again told that my child could leave the classroom during this activity,” said Rothwell. However, her request was simply ignored. “A few weeks later my daughter came home crying because her teacher had the same coloring books for the kids,” Rothwell told me, “After my daughter colored the page in question, her teacher made her rip it out of the book. She told her that she wasn’t allowed to take it home. I again contacted FFRF. I had an almost immediate response from the attorney.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to the school in February of this year complaining about “the endorsement and advancement of Christianity.” According to Rothwell, the letter resulted in an apology from the Superintendent and an assurance that “the teachers did that [the religious coloring books] on their own and was not an approved part of the curriculum.”

In my opinion, the motivations of the school officials during Mrs. Rothwell’s nightmare are clear as can be. There is a serious cultural issue within the Lebanon School District when it comes to the influence of the Christian religion. The reluctance of the school to even address these issues until threatened with legal action or a public-relations nightmare is further evidence of the insidious indoctrination going on in the Lebanon R-3 district. In fact, the school has been ignoring Ye Olde Journalist’s requests for an interview on this matter; sometimes silence is deafening.

Mrs. Rothwell’s complaints led me to investigate this year’s holiday programs and goings-on. What I found will, I think, solidify my case that the R-3 district is not only legally in the wrong, but morally and ethically bankrupt as well. However, that is being saved for part two.

Image: Wikimedia Commons