Poor Partnership: Federal Court Derails Tenn. County’s Relationship With Christian Academy

A partnership between a Tennessee public school and a Christian academy flunks a constitutional test.

It’s a sad fact of life that some youngsters get into trouble in school. They might cut class, get involved with alcohol or drugs, start fights and so on. Sometimes public school officials find students like this too disruptive to keep in the classroom.

What should be done with such kids? If your response is, “Send them to a Christian academy at taxpayer expense,” that’s the wrong answer.

In Jefferson County, Tenn., local education officials decided to try that. A federal court has just told them to stop.

Jefferson County used to have an alternative school to serve troubled young people. But money got tight, and the county decided to shut it down. Officials then began contracting with Kingswood School, a private school in a nearby county, to take on the job.

Kingswood isn’t tied to any particular church or denomination, but its Christian mission is clear. The school’s website states that it “provides to displaced children a Christian home-like environment where every effort is made to develop in each child a personal faith in God, in himself, and in his fellowman.”

The school goes on to say that it focuses on “fostering personal and spiritual growth” and adds that each student “will have benefit of participation in a mainstream interdenominational church through the Kingswood Campus Minister at the A.E. Wachtel Chapel on the Kingswood campus…. No child placed in the care of Kingswood will ever be made to feel compelled to adopt the doctrine of a particular denomination or church. Within this context, each child will develope (sic) his or her own chosen church or denominational affiliation for worship.”

Kingswood vows that it will help a youngster grow “in his or her spiritual and religious life.”

Whatever led education officials in Jefferson County to believe that a school like this could operate as an adjunct to the public system? It clearly cannot, as U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Phillips wrote.

“The average student that attended Kingswood would arrive on campus and see a church within the grounds,” Phillips observed. “She would then see an intake staff member who was also an ordained minister. After intake, the student would attend secular classes, but would take home report cards branded with Christian language and symbols. In order to progress though the level system, she would need to have her parents routinely sign and return Family Feedback Forms that also contained Bible verses. If she visited Kingswood’s website, she would be greeted by the phrases ‘Christian environment’ and ‘Christian education’ among others. Benefactors would receive fundraising correspondence that contained Christian references and iconography, and assemblies would be held in the campus church.”

Added Phillips, “[T]he facts plainly establish that Kingswood is a religious institution – a fine institution – but an institution that should have never sought to operate a public alternative school as part of its ministry. The appearance of governmental endorsement of the Christian faith is too pronounced and non-believers, or students of a different faith, would likely feel divorced from Kingswood, a well-intentioned, but overtly-Christian school.”

The judge is right. It looks like Kingswood does some good work with young people. But the school does it within the context of the Christian faith. That makes it an inappropriate partner for a public school system.

Rather than ship kids off to a Christian academy, perhaps educators in Jefferson County should reopen the alternative school or design a new program that serves all young people in need, no matter what they think about God and religion.