School Gave Access to Christian-Only Student Exchange Program

Atheists Need Not Apply

Does the U.S. State Department endorse a group that discriminates against U.S. citizens who are non-Christians? Why would a Pennsylvania public school district give such a group access to its students?

Contact with the ProAmerican Educational And Cultural Exchange (PEACE), led the parent of a student at Elizabeth Forward High School student in Elizabeth, Pa., to complain to the Freedom of Religion Foundation, which has nearly 500 members in the state.

PEACE's Web site says it's "committed to the development of Godly leaders. We invite educators, parents, and religious leaders to join us to serve our student's academic, emotional, and spiritual needs by creating a loving and moral environment in which to learn each others histories, cultures, and languages, so that we may live and work together in harmony."

Last March, the parent reported that her son's Spanish teacher brought a PEACE representative into class to talk about hosting foreign exchange students. PEACE later called because the son had filled out a card expressing interest. The complainant recalls the conversation:

"She mentioned that they were a Christian organization, and I asked if it mattered if I was not a Christian and she said, 'No, we have families who aren't.' She asked about taking a student to church, and I said I'd be willing to do that and explained that I thought everyone had to right to worship or not worship as they see fit.

"She then said, 'Well, you don't mean you're an atheist, do you?' Even though I don't usually label myself an atheist, but more of an agnostic, the way she said the word 'atheist' made it hard for me to not say 'yes,' so I did. She said, 'oh' and asked if she could put me on hold."

Ten minutes later she was told that since the exchange students were practicing Catholics, she could not host a student. This upset her: "My son is a straight-A high school senior who is headed to Princeton or Northeastern. My daughter is a Christian who goes to a faith-based horse camp every summer. I own my own home, have two cars and a master's degree. I'm sure this organization could find much worse Christian families to place and exchange student with."

In her research on PEACE, she found its statement "Uniting The Americas Through Our Children, a U.S. State Department Designated Program
Supervised by the Bureau of Educational And Cultural Affairs," along with its designation as a charitable nonprofit.

At the complainant's behest, Foundation attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote a letter to the School District in May and a follow-up letter in August, after the first letter got no response. (The letters are here.) Kratz noted why the situation is troubling. "First, we are concerned that a school is inviting a group that discriminates against nonbelievers to speak at the school. Certainly, this program excited and sparked interest amongst all students in the Spanish class, and it is more than disappointing for a student to be discriminated against because of nonbelief. Second, we are concerned that the teacher gave this pervasively Christian organization unique access to a group of high school students during instructional hours."

That access could reasonably lead students and parents to conclude that the school endorses a Christian exchange program and PEACE's religious message, Kratz said. The Foundation also asked if school officials were aware of the content of the presentation and if nonreligious exchange programs were afforded equal opportunity.

On Dec. 4, the Foundation received a response from Patricia McGrail, an attorney representing the school district. McGrail claimed the district "would not knowingly invite any group to speak to its students that would discriminate against a particular group of individuals."

PEACE's presentation "did not include the promotion of their faith ideals," McGrail argued, without noting on what basis that contention was based.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, said: "We think it's important to expose PEACE's 'Atheists Need Not Apply' policy. It should not be socially acceptable, and such a group should not be allowed to recruit in public schools."

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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