A high school student named Colton Osborne died last year in a tragic ATV accident, and his friends and community members honored him by installing a bench near the baseball field outside Randolph Henry High School in Virginia in his memory. The bench was inscribed with his name, nickname, and Bible verse.
Osborne is remembered for his love of baseball, that’s why the bench was placed next to the baseball field and reads “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me — Philippians 4:13.”
This isn’t a private bench, either. It was installed only after the District approved the design, and the dedication ceremony included plenty of school officials. It’s incredible that no administrator noticed the problem.
That means this wonderful tribute to a wonderful student includes a school-sponsored promotion of Christianity. The bench is breaking the law.
And this is becoming an even bigger problem since other groups have requested permission to install other memorials in the District, which means it’s up to administrators to come up with guidelines for what is and isn’t allowed. If they let this bench with the Bible verse stand, it’s open season for any group to install a bench promoting religion on it.
To be clear, no atheist group has sent the school any warnings about this. There haven’t been any public complaints. Yet. But the Charlotte County School Board knows they could be sued over this — and that they would lose. Rather than drag Colton’s name and legacy through all that, they’ve chosen to be pro-active. They’re going to issue guidelines that make clear benches can’t promote religion, and that means they’re going to pay for the Bible verse on Colton’s bench to be replaced with a secular alternative.
“We have to remove the bench, or cover the scripture or change that verse to something else that may represent the child,” [Superintendent Nancy Leonard] said.
The school system said it’s working with the family to come up with something different, like a different quote, wording, or something else that was special to Colton to replace the Bible verse.
The school system will also be responsible to pay for the changes.
This is the responsible thing to do. The School Board made a huge mistake by allowing the verse to go up on the public bench in the first place. They should’ve said no once they saw the design, but at least they’re handling it before it becomes a bigger controversy.
Naturally, some people are very upset that the District is abiding by the law.
One student, Kelsi Letterman, created a Change.org petition to keep the bench intact. But even though the petition has more than 5,000 signatures… none of that matters. It could have a million signatures, and the bench would still be illegal. (I would love to ask the people signing the petition if a verse from the Qur’an, or a line saying “God doesn’t exist,” would be appropriate.)
Another local parent, Teresa Dunaway, who plans to run for the School Board, told a local reporter that she was devastated by the news because her own grandson was involved in the dedication ceremony… but she didn’t respond to the legal issues. She deflected by saying the administrators, after giving her a run-around, didn’t have a problem with it at the time.
Dunaway, giving her reaction to the announcement that the Osborne memorial is deemed illegal, said, “I’m shocked. My heart is broke. My grandson has cried and cried and cried. He actually made a speech the night we dedicated the bench.”
After speaking again with [Athletic Director Chris] Holt, asking if the bench could be placed, as conceived, at the school, Dunaway said, “He called me back and said, ‘That’s not a problem,’ because the school was not purchasing it or, like, a teacher or the staff. It was purchased by individuals. They didn’t see any problem in it placing there.”
If I purchased a Satanic monument for the District, would it be allowed? I doubt it. But that sort of thinking never crossed the administrators’ minds when they said yes to the bench months ago. (That’s what Christian privilege looks like.)
Ultimately, the District is right to make the fix. They were wrong to allow the bench to go up, but they’re right to change the verse before it snowballs into a much larger problem. Some people will be upset, but they’ll be more furious if and when the District has to pay a hefty penalty in court.
It’s better to honor Colton’s memory in a way that doesn’t break the law.
(Thanks to David for the link)