After religious controversy, Massachusetts school board okays Christian private school

Kevin J. Jones   By Kevin J. Jones for CNA


Wuttichai jantarak/Shutterstock

Denver Newsroom, Apr 29, 2022 / 17:10 pm (CNA).

A Massachusetts school committee has fulfilled its duty and approved the application of a private Christian school despite controversy when committee members questioned the planned school’s religious beliefs in a way that drew accusations of impermissible hostility to religion.

“We are grateful that Somerville officials recognized that the government cannot ban a religious school because they disagree with its religious beliefs,” Ryan Gardner, counsel for the Texas-based First Liberty Institute religious freedom legal group. “Because of the school board’s decision, more families will be able to provide the education they desire for their children.”

The school application to the Somerville School Committee came from Vida Real Church, whose congregation is predominantly Hispanic and immigrant. In September 2021, the church had sought approval to open a K-8 school, called the Real Life Learning Center.

The school committee is an elected body that oversees the public schools. Under state law, it is tasked with the approval of private school applications.

Backers of the church’s private school effort charged that the committee wrongly delayed consideration of the application and placed obstacles to its approval. Committee members questioned the school’s ability to teach its students because of its religious beliefs, its reliance on Christian authors for its curriculum, and its beliefs about creation and evolution and sexuality were questioned, said leaders with the First Liberty Institute and the Massachusetts Family Institute in a March 30 letter to the school committee.

Somerville, northwest of Boston, has about 81,000 residents. It is the home of Tufts University.

School committee leaders rejected charges that they discriminate, according to The Daily Tufts, an independent Tufts University student newspaper.

“The Somerville Public Schools does not discriminate on the basis of religion or any other protected class,” said a statement from Andre Green, school committee chairman, and Mary Skipper, superintendent of Somerville Public Schools.

Emily Ackman, Ward 1 school committee member, said at the May 25 meeting that failure to approve the application would result in a lawsuit, “and we would lose.”

School committee member Laura Pitone said the approval process is a “conundrum,” adding that it is “incredibly, emotionally painful for some people in the community to have this type of school in our community.”

Committee member Sara Dion was the only member to vote against approving the school.

Christian Cole, a pastor at Vida Real Church, welcomed the approval.

“This is a time to celebrate for us! After months of battling with the school committee, we will finally have a private CHRISTIAN school in Somerville where parents can send their children to learn in an environment that reflects their values,” Cole said, according to the Massachusetts Family Institute.

“We’ve heard from so many parents concerned about the perverted sexual ideologies their children are being force-fed in the public schools and who are desperate for a healthy educational alternative with a Biblical worldview. We encourage all churches to work towards the goal of making Christian education accessible for every family in New England. Both as a pastor and a parent, I rest assured knowing I will soon be able to send my children to Real Life Learning Center.”

Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, on April 27 said the approval of the school was “an important victory over anti-Christian bigotry specifically and for freedom of religion in general.”

The March 30 letter to the school committee said that during the approval process the committee sent 35 questions to church officials that the church considered “hostile.” Some of these questions regarded whether the school’s religious beliefs meant it could adequately teach students.

At a March meeting the school committee’s Subcommittee for Educational Programs recommended the rejection of the school’s application. Subcommittee member Sara Dion argued that the educators at the private school would lack technical expertise. She said that the school failed to meet state law on the emotional development of students.

The March 30 letter to the school committee quoted Dion as saying that denying the application was the “morally right thing to do”, and that paying for litigation to prevent or delay the school opening would be “well worth it.” According to the letter, Dion “reiterated previous hostile comments regarding Vida Real’s beliefs regarding counseling and sexual morality,” criticized its desire to admit only Christian students, and described teaching creationism as “factually incorrect” and comparable to teaching that “two plus two equals five.”

“The school’s position on homosexuality and creationism make it difficult to see how a thorough science and health curriculum is possible,” said the subcommittee report on the proposed private school, according to letter.

The school’s approach to student services and counseling “appears to devalue evidence-based psychology and its emphasis on approaches rooted in the belief that mental illness is caused by sin and demons is unscientific and harmful,” the report continued. It deemed the school “entirely contrary to the values” of the school system and to “the idea of educating the whole child as being inclusive.”

By law, a private school in Massachusetts may operate only if the local public school committee approves, and applications cannot be rejected on the basis of religious teachings. The private school must be equal to the public schools in “thoroughness and efficiency.”

At the same time, the March 30 letter to the school council said legal advisories from the state say a school committee does not have the role of evaluating a proposed private school’s curriculum quality. The school aims to base its curriculum on that of the Accelerated Christian Education, a 50-year-old curriculum now used by over 1,000 U.S. schools. At least four other private schools in Massachusetts use the curriculum.

The ACE Ministries website describes the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum as a “full program” that “contains a system of learning,” including “a biblical self-instructional curriculum, educators’ conventions, and ministry opportunities for students.”

The website said that when ACE was founded in 1970, “government education was quickly moving toward humanism, secularism, and atheism.” It added “fast forward 50 years and the need is greater than ever for biblically sound education.”

At the April 25 school committee meeting, the committee followed its approval of the private school application with votes to improve support for self-identified LGBTQ students in public schools and to extend support to all youth in Somerville. The committee passed a resolution asking the state of Massachusetts to revisit guidelines for the approval of private schools, The Tufts Daily reports.

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1 Comment

  1. It seems the pendulum is starting to swing towards (more) common sense in elementary education approaches, albeit very slowly.

    It will be interesting to see how the vouchers bill works in Iowa, as that gradually unfolds.

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