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Church goes to school in Conway

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An interesting controversy is brewing in Conway Public Schools, periodically a scene of discord as more liberal constituents object to the heavy dose of religion that powerful local churches have tried to inject into the schools, particularly in sex education short on science and long on abstinence.

For many years, a number of church-related youth organizations have made a practice of sending representatives to school at lunchtime to eat and chat with their members. Recently, some parents complained about the practice, particularly about some religious groups, such as K-Life, an evangelical organization, that visit at a middle school.

The complaint, to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, produced a letter of inquiry and warning from the foundation.

It said in part: "It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for Conway Public Schools to offer Christian ministers unique access to befriend and proselytize students during the school day on school property. This practice is especially concerning if it occurs on a regular basis. No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors in a public school. This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags."

As a result of the letter, Superintendent Greg Murry suspended all campus visits by religious groups until he could assess the situation and report to the board. Or so he told the Arkansas Times last Thursday.

The suspension caused a stir at several churches that've sent representatives to Conway schools, though officials of K-Life, one of the main groups mentioned, said it was comfortable with Murry taking a careful look. It insisted its representatives didn't proselytize others, but merely visited with existing members.

But Friday, Murry suddenly changed course. He turned the matter over to the Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian group founded by a Texas lawyer, that provides free lawyering to groups hoping to advance religion in the public square. It succeeded in a recent case in getting a cross restored to a spot in the Mojave Desert. Murry turned over all public comment on the matter to the Liberty Institute.

Parents who'd complained about the religious visitors — and who insisted the proselytizing WAS part of the program of some church-related visitors — were crestfallen about Murry's decision. They took it to mean he'll eventually restore the religious programs and that they'll continue as overtly evangelical outreaches.

The Liberty Institute said in a news release that it, not Murry, will conduct an investigation "regarding equal access for visitors to the school and make a report and recommendation to the district on or before Feb. 12, 2013."

A news release distributed about the decision quotes Murry as saying, "The district respects the religious liberty of all students and citizens and will work diligently to follow the Constitution and take the appropriate steps necessary to investigate this issue further and follow the law." It will be interesting to see if equal access includes friendly visits by atheists, humanists, Buddhists and the ACLU.

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