By Gillian Graham
BIDDEFORD — The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is asking two Biddeford public schools to apologize for a program that the organization says subjected students to “overtly religious presentations” in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Presentations of a program called “Life Choices” by a Rochester, Ind., group of the same name were made Sept. 24 at Biddeford Middle School and Sept. 25 at Biddeford High School by Debbie Phillips, whose niece was killed at Columbine High School in 1999.
The presentations included video footage of dead students in the shooting at the Littleton, Colo., school, as well as graphic accounts of the murder there of the first victim, Rachel Scott, Phillips’ niece; promotion of abstinence; and judgmental statements about clothing choices, according to the ACLU of Maine.
There were multiple references to “Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior” and “being killed for Christ,” the organization said in a statement Friday. The Constitution prohibits such school-sponsored religion, it said.
“It is the right of families, not schools, to raise children with certain religious beliefs and values – or none at all,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “This sort of proselytizing has no place in Maine’s public schools, and we are hopeful other schools will keep this in mind when planning presentations.”
Phillips said Friday her public school presentations focus on tolerance and respect, not religious messages.
“I preach the gospel in churches, but I don’t do that in public schools,” she said. “We respect the forum we’re in. We’ve been vetted by lawyers who believe we are constitutionally correct and don’t cross the line.”
Southern Maine school officials differ about whether the program is appropriate for schools.
The Biddeford schools superintendent said Friday the presentation carried important messages, while the Massabesic schools superintendent said the recent presentation in that district pushed the line on what is appropriate in a public school. A presentation also was scheduled to take place at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, but was canceled after school officials heard about its content from other school districts and decided it “wasn’t a good fit for our district,” said Superintendent Frank Sherburne.
Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray, who attended a presentation last week, said he has not heard from students or parents with concerns about the content of Phillips’ message.
“These presentations were promoted as relating to the tragedy at Columbine and as supporting tolerance, school safety and respect toward others,” he said. “The programs did address these issues as well as student self-worth and the dangers of bullying. These are important messages relating to student safety that the school department is committed to sharing with students.”
Ray said he is sorry if anyone was offended by the presentation and “it wasn’t our intent to do anything wrong.”
The ACLU of Maine is asking Biddeford schools to apologize to all students and commit to not hosting Life Choices presentations in the future. Rachel Healy, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maine, said the organization “wouldn’t rule out litigation” if Biddeford officials do not apologize.
The organization was contacted by a Biddeford parent who was concerned about the presentation, Healy said.
The Life Choices presentation also was given at Massabesic High School in Waterboro. In addition, Phillips made presentations at local churches during her trip to Maine.
The Biddeford presentation was sponsored by Volk Packaging of Biddeford, according to Ray. Owner Derek Volk did not return a call seeking comment Friday.
“My belief is that (Volk) had very good intentions,” Ray said.
Life Choices has presented 700 programs to a half-million students across the country in the past 10 years, according to its website.
Life Choices describes its presentation “as a fast-paced, motivational and multi-media event” that uses videos, music and real life experiences.
The presentation includes descriptions of Rachel Scott, who Phillips said was asked if she believed in God before she was shot in the head by Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Life Choices also encourages students to respect themselves and others and avoid being pressured into sexual activity, although it stops short of pushing an abstinence-only message, Phillips said.
“We’re not telling kids not to have sex, we’re telling them they should be respected,” she said. During the presentation, Phillips performs a song called “Don’t Give Your Love Away.”
The Biddeford schools presentations were “fully vetted” by the principals and superintendent, Phillips said. She said the ACLU in Texas raised similar concerns about her presentation several years ago, but nothing came of it.
“I don’t think we’re in any danger of getting the schools in trouble,” Phillips said.
Phillips gave her Life Choices presentation to ninth-graders at Massabesic High School on Sept. 23. Superintendent John Davis said a parent approached him afterward with concerns about the content, which prompted him to investigate and ultimately make changes in how the school department vets presentations.
Davis said Life Choices was described to the school department as an anti-bullying presentation and the district “had done what we thought was our due diligence in investigating what they wanted to do and what their presentation contained.”
The presentation was sponsored by a local church and did not cost the district any money, he said.
“On the surface, it sounded reasonable,” Davis said, noting only freshmen attended the assembly. “Whether it was one grade or one student, it didn’t meet my expectations about what is appropriate in a public school.”
Davis said he notified other schools about the content of the presentation. In the future, Massabesic officials will seek out references for similar presentations, ask organizations to be more specific about their messages, and encourage staff members to stop or redirect presentations they feel may be inappropriate for students.
Healy said the ACLU of Maine so far has sent letters only to Biddeford schools, but will look at other instances where the presentation was given in public schools.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6310 or at: