A discussion regarding the possible approval of a Christian Learning Center in Newton County led to heated comments by some members of the Newton County Board of Education Tuesday night.
Pastor Jason Dees, along with others, had presented the board with a proposal for an off-campus, privately funded, parental consent program that would teach Christian concepts such as honoring parents, purity before marriage and living a life of integrity. The group had proposed a center in Newton County, and was hoping the board would take action at their meeting in order to allow fundraising to start for the 2012-13 school year.
Although a religious program, since it is privately funded and receives nothing from the government and no tax money, it does not fall under the separation of church and state doctrine. The Southern Association of College and Schools accredited the program in 2004. There is a CLC program in Walton County and the hope was that Newton County could mirror what seemed to work well in the adjoining county.
"I love the program. I visited Walton County and I was moved to tears... I think it is definitely something out community needs," said District 3 board representative Shakila Henderson-Baker.
Dees stressed to the board that he wanted to work with them to implement the programs so that it would fit the students of the county. Currently the group is attempting to get access to a church for free to start the first program. After board members suggested waiting until the 2013-14 school year, the group agreed that would be possible, since the general consensus was that the program, if started, needed to be done correctly from the start.
It was then that board chairman and District 2 representative Eddie Johnson voiced his opposition to the program.
"I am opposed to this because I firmly believe the church and state doctrine should prevail, among other things. I don't see this program has demonstrate enough for me to vote in favor of it... we got to have a full exposure of the program to all the community, not just one segment," he said.
"We want this program to be for the county and for all schools," explained Dees, saying the location they had suggested was just a starting point in a central location, and that nothing had been set in stone or put on paper as of yet.
District 4 representative Almond Turner asked Dees if it would be possible to move the discussion to the June meeting and Johnson interrupted, saying, "Excuse me, but that is a suggestion, not a vote of the board."
He continued voicing his disapproval, saying that having employees who are paid by tax dollars work on the program in any way was a violation.
"I got a problem with that...That's a violation. This board gonna spend resources with a church, that's what we got to do, and that's a violation of church and state doctrine. How we gonna do that?"
Abigail Morgan Coggin, District 5 representative, attempted to explain to Johnson that SACS had already fought that battle of separation of church and state and that the program was legal, all the board would actually be voting on was releasing the students for school and that they would get credit for the curriculum.
"...Using tax supported resources - that is a violation, that is clear. It is wrong, I am totally opposed against it, make no mistake about it... I can't violate in good conscience what the laws are. I can't do it, I won't do it."
When Henderson-Baker made a motion to approve the concept of the CLC in the Newton County School System and implement the program in the 2013-14 school year contingent upon all the specifics, logistics, planning and support of the community has been ironed out, so the group could begin fundraising and bringing the concept to the community, Johnson became livid.
"I'm at a baffle here that we can implement a contingency plan, agree on it and got nothing to base it on other than a promise. I just don't see the board of education doing this without factual info.... We got nothing. We don't even got public support and that's wrong."
After arguing that her motion was based on a concept and had a contingency Henderson-Baker said, "Well, then we need a vote."
"Let me do that," Johnson said. "Call for a vote comes from the chair."
The board voted with all but Johnson in favor of Henderson-Baker's motion.