The Board of Trustees for the Greenville County Schools in South Carolina wants clergy members to be able to review what books are appropriate for public school students, and they may face a legal challenge if they go through with it.
Recently, there’s been a push by conservative school boards to ban books deemed inappropriate for kids; their idea of what’s inappropriate boils down to books that mention LGBTQ people or sex unless fire and brimstone are included as a consequence.
Last May, for example, the Greenville County Schools Board of Trustees voted to ban a book called Melissa, about a trans girl, from all elementary schools in the district. Middle school students would need parental permission to check it out.
The people who make those kinds of suggestions to the board sit on a “Materials Review Committee.” The group judges the appropriateness of material across the curriculum, but the books are where all the action is at these days.
In August, the Board announced that it was accepting applications from anyone interested in joining that committee for a three-year term. But their announcement raised eyebrows because they specifically said clergy members would be included in the mix:
At the elementary school level, the committee will be comprised of three parents with children enrolled in Greenville county elementary schools, four district elementary school teachers from different grade levels, one district elementary school media specialist, one member of the clergy and two non-employees of the school district.
At the middle school level, the committee will be comprised of three parents with children enrolled in Greenville County middle schools, three district middle school teachers from different subject areas, one district middle school media specialist, one member of the clergy, and two non-employees of the school district.
At the high school level, the committee will be comprised of three parents with children enrolled in Greenville County high schools, three district high school teachers from different subject areas; one high school media specialist, one member of the clergy, and two non-employees of the school district.
What the hell would a clergy member add to the discussion? Who cares what pastors think about a particular book? Why is leading a church a prerequisite for a seat on this committee but not leading a non-profit that helps kids struggling with mental health?
Parents raised that concern too:
“It’s a very clear violation of the establishment clause,” said Marcus Corder, parent of a student at Lake Forest Elementary. “It makes me wonder what type of clergy have had the power over the decision of taxpayers’ money over the years.”
Corder, who said he also attended Lake Forest as a child, wants clergy removed from the committees.
“It’s a further erosion of the separation of church and state,” Corder said.
According to the Greenville News, though, the inclusion of clergy members for these committees is mandated by the state:
Requirement of clergy on the advisory committees comes from the state’s Comprehensive Health Education Act of 1988, which was passed to assist in selecting curriculum components and materials, according to [executive director of academic innovation and technology Charlotte] McDavid. Every school district in South Carolina uses such a committee, McDavid said.
If that’s the case, then this isn’t a problem with the school board. It would be a problem with state law. But it turns out that’s not actually true.
In a letter the Freedom From Religion Foundation just sent to the Greenville County Schools, their decision to put clergy members on the Materials Review Committee is their choice, not a state law, because the law restricts the inclusion of clergy members to committees reviewing “reproductive health education, family life education, and pregnancy prevention education.”
So… not books. Certainly not books by or about LGBTQ people. To be clear, clergy members should not have a say in health education either. It’s an awful, potentially illegal, law as well. But it’s a separate issue that’s not currently up for debate.
The bottom line is that FFRF says this is the school board’s problem to fix if they want to avoid a lawsuit.
According to a local news source, the District claims the inclusion of clergy on the committees is required by South Carolina’s Comprehensive Health Education Act of 1988 (“CHEA”). However, the CHEA provides that material review committees “assist in the selection of components and curriculum materials” for “instructional materials addressing the subjects of reproductive health education, family life education, and pregnancy prevention education.” In contrast, the District’s committees are not assisting in the initial selection of curriculum materials nor are the committees focused on subjects related to reproductive health education, family life education, or pregnancy prevention education. Instead, the District’s Materials Review Committees address complaints, and these complaints may be about any and all District materials, not just materials regarding health education.
Since the law is specific regarding what materials they can cover, FFRF says the clergy members have to go in this particular case.
The District must eliminate the clergy member positions from each Materials Review Committee. It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a public school district to create special positions for religious leaders.
The Greenville County Schools should take this seriously given that this isn’t their first run-in with the church/state separation crowd. In 2020, after a six-year legal battle over Christian prayers at their graduation ceremonies, the same school district lost the case and had to pay the American Humanist Association $187,000 in legal fees.
That’s going to be the outcome here as well. Clergy members, in and of themselves, have nothing of value to offer public schools when it comes to what books should be available to kids. If they have some kind of special knowledge in that arena, then that should be what they emphasize. That’s all that matters.