Sunday, September 18, 2016

Religious Liberty in Chaotic Times

R. Lee Saunders, Head Administrator

Bill Wichterman, senior legislative advisor from Covington & Burling, and a former policy advisor to President George W. Bush and Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, was the opening speaker for the 2016 ACSI Legal/Legislative conference in Washington, DC September 12-14. The title of this blog was the title of his opening presentation at the conference. It was a privilege for me to be invited to attend, along with 20 other Christian school administrators from 11 states.  Bill's opening address provided not only information regarding the increasing pressure and difficulty that Christian institutions are encountering when it comes to navigating government regulation, but inspiration that will help us understand how to deal with it.

There is a lot of information, and mis-information which gets passed along when it comes to what the government is doing, and why, and it helps to hear from someone who knows, and is in a place where daily observation provides genuine and accurate insights.  The balance between civil rights and religious liberty is changing, issues are arising from court decisions and legislation that is placing religious institutions like Christian schools in a precarious position when it comes to things like employment practices, admissions policies, and the civil rights of students.  Things like the definition of "protected minority" and where the line is drawn between civil rights and the inalienable guarantees of the constitution are changing, and each succeeding piece of legislation or court ruling has the potential to intrude in areas where it has never intruded before.   And if you think there's someone taking care of these things in Washington for us, you'd be right, except that it's probably not what you think.  ACSI, which represents about 2,700 schools in the United States, with about 800,000 students, has a legal/legislative department in its Colorado Springs office with two staff members, and we have a Director of Government Affairs in a one-man office in Washington, DC.  So the 21 of us who went to Washington last week, and were probably the only Christian school administrators to go to Washington this year, are it.  And there is a lot that is happening. 

Tuesday, we gathered in Congressman Joe Pitts' conference room in the Cannon House Office Building for morning and afternoon conferences built around the legal and legislative issues faced by Christian schools. We heard from Congresswoman Vicki Hartzler of Missouri, who was a teacher in a Christian school that her mother founded and is a strong advocate and protector of Christian schools.  Congressman Steve Russell, of Oklahoma, has proposed an amendment to a bill which asserts the religious liberty rights of organizations in hiring practices.  Senator James Lankford, of Oklahoma is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and served as a staff member at the Baptist Convention of Oklahoma, directing the largest Christian youth camp in the country prior to becoming a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, and then getting elected as a United States Senator taking former Senator Tom Coburn's seat.  These legislators all had a powerful testimony of faith, and all have a direct connection to Christian schools. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive presentations of the day, from my perspective, came from a young lady named Erica Suares.  The daughter of immigrants from India, Erica is a graduate of Lakeland Christian School in Florida.  With degrees from Auburn and Harvard, Erica's service record is impressive.  She started out at the Heritage Foundation, and has been a legislative advisor to serveral Senators, and in the office of the Political Director of the White House.  She was the deputy director of legislative affairs for the Romney campaign, and is currently the Policy Advisor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  Erica talked about how her education in a Christian school not only helped her come to Christ, but gave her a firm foundation from a Biblical worldview.  Erica is a Christian school graduate who is making a difference.  She arranged for her presentation to our group to take place in the Strom Thurmond room of the Senate wing of the Capitol building, and we were escorted there by a couple of interns from Congressman Pitts' office, one of whom was a graduate of Jefferson County Christian School. 

Wednesday, we scattered out across Capitol Hill to visit with Senators, Congressmen and their staffs, from our own states.  The three of us in the Pennsylvania delegation shared meetings in pairs with Senator Casey's office and Senator Toomey's office, and we met separately with our individual congressmen's offices.  The goal was to share our specific concerns, especially on the religious liberty interpretation issues, and help the legislators understand how those of us who are directly affected and impacted by their decisions.  Christian groups and churches which operate institutions like schools and colleges are being accused of using their claim to the first amendment guarantee of religious liberty to discriminate against those with whom we disagree, particularly on sexual orientation and gender identity issues, and as a means of protecting bigotry.  Our legislators, regardless of their party affiliation, need to see us and hear from us, and we need to let them know about what our schools are doing, and help them understand that we are committed to a ministry that comes from a sense of mission and purpose that is firmly rooted in our Christian faith.  

I wanted our legislators and their staff members to understand and see that we are committed to a cause which has a specific Christian mission and purpose to encourage and enhance the lives of our students and their families, and that our intention is not to discriminate, but to practice and live out our faith according to the higher law that we acknowledge as the written word of God.  People come to our schools voluntarily, not through any kind of coercion, with the understanding that the guarantee of religious liberty of the first amendment allows us to integrate Biblical principles into the curriculum, and offer our students Christian discipleship through the educational process, which is exactly where it fits and where it belongs.  We believe that the first amendment guarantee of religious liberty is all that we need to do what we do, not something to use in order to discriminate or to use as a means of justifying or hiding bigotry.  We are exercising an inalienable right, guaranteed by the first amendment, and our lawmakers need to understand what we do, and realize that their actions will impact our work. 

Almost everything we hear and see about our government is negative.  And yet, our government is a representative democracy, and it is made up of representatives that we elect.  The unavoidable conclusion of that fact is that government is a reflection of our society and our culture.  The first three words of the constitution are, "We the people."  My impression of our government was changed considerably by those three days in mid-September in Washington.  We live in a pluralistic society, and it has been the fundamental liberties and individual rights we have as Americans that has been the attraction.  We may not always be in the majority, and in fact, it is possible that we may never be.  But there were 21 Christian school administrators who spend three days interacting with the members of our representative democracy on their turf.  The conference room we used was borrowed from one of our congressmen from Pennsylvania, the other, from the majority leader of the Senate.  We were escorted through the hallways of the Capitol building by their staff members, and collectively, we met with the political and advisory staffs of 22 Senators and at least 24 congressmen.  Those who came to speak to us inspired us, and I hope that our presence there encouraged them.  That's the way it works best. 

I appreciate the work of those at ACSI who are on the line for us all the time, Thomas Cathey and Phillip Scott, who work in the Legal/Legislative office in Colorado Springs, and George Tryfiates, who mans the office in Washington, DC.  They work on behalf of Christian schools and they need our support and our prayers. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Staying in Christian School through Senior Year

Understanding that the early years of childhood are very important when it comes to skills development and faith formation, about two thirds of the Christian schools in our country are aimed at providing a faith-based educational environment through the 6th grade, and in some cases the 8th grade.  Beyond that point, many parents begin to think that social development of their children may be better served in a public school that offers a wider variety of extra curricular activities in fine arts and athletics than smaller, Christian schools can offer.  They believe that the spiritual foundation that has been developed during those early, formative years is strong enough for their children to "get out of the Christian bubble," or to "leave the more sheltered environment".  And they believe that in the secular environment of the public school setting, their children's faith will actually be strengthened by this exposure to "the real world." 

There are other motivations for making this kind of choice.  One of them is certainly financial.  As college costs increase, many families are hard pressed to continue paying tuition and fees for students to attend Christian school, especially if there are two or three children in the family. High school costs more. Finding another Christian school that offers what you're looking for in the upper grades is not always easy, and there's the social pressure if their friends opt for the public school instead of another Christian school.  Many parents think that six, or eight years of Christian schooling is enough to lay a strong faith foundation for their children, and enable them to resist the philosophical, social and moral challenges that are a daily part of life in the public school system. 

In fact, a few kids who come from a Christian school into the public school system are equipped to handle all of the challenges, are determined enough to remain committed and understand where their strength comes from, and have the kind of spiritual foundation at home that supports their continued growth in their Christian faith.  But most of them, the vast majority of them, are not. 

Dr. Glen Shultz, in the introduction to his book, Kingdom Education, points to several sources which indicate that a few years of Christian education is not enough to counter the influence of years of forced tolerance, relativism, subjectivism, and secular humanism that form the philosophical foundations of public education in America.  Dr. Ravi Zacharias, a noted Christian apologist, points to five specific factors that have significantly impacted our culture, primarily through its public education system, including the rise of atheism, eastern mysticism, the controlling impact of the visual, a worldview oriented toward youth, and the loss of a single source of authority with the right to lay claim to moral direction.  Dr. Zacharias asks the question, "How do you reach a generation that hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings?" Dr. Shultz points out research which shows that only 7% of teenagers who consider themselves "born again Christians" base their moral choices on Biblical principles. 

Let that sink in for a minute.

Dr. Voddie Baucham, a noted Christian apologist and pastor, says, "If you turn the education of your children over to Caesar, you should not be surprised when they become Romans."  He's also said that whoever controls the schools controls the world.  If you look around at the world, and at the culture and society in which we live, you must conclude that a few years--six, or perhaps even eight-- of Christian schooling, while it may be beneficial, is probably not enough.  Weigh your child's future, and their faith foundation against a few sacrifices in social activity, athletics, or cost.  It's easy to see the benefits, blessings, and importance that comes with those extra four or six years in Christian secondary education.

Staying at PCS
You won't miss much that you might find elsewhere if you decide to stay at PCS.  And what you gain on the spiritual side outweighs all other advantages.  The fact of the matter is that a Christian school is the only institution outside the home or church where teachers will instill a Biblical worldview in your children.

Our Bible curriculum, from 7th through 12th grade, has been restructured to provide students with a complete and solid Biblical worldview.  Instruction is provided in basic Bible study skills with survey courses built around an approach that connects personal, moral decisions with scriptural principles, along with development of a systematic theology that teaches students to apply the doctrinal points that they study to their personal life.  As they approach their junior and senior year, Christian apologetics are introduced into their core Bible class, and in their senior year, they wrap up the summary of their Biblical worldview with practical, real-life application. 

Understanding the connection between themselves and the Holy Spirit, in order to become the "spiritually minded" follower of Christ that the Apostle Paul speaks of in I Corinthians 1 and 2, PCS provides many opportunities to students to live out their faith.  Three school days each year are set aside for all students to engage in mission service, so that over the course of their junior and senior high years, they will have served in as many as 12 different venues, from assisting with patients in a nursing home, to preparing boxes for Operation Christmas Child, to helping a rescue mission serve Thanksgiving to almost 1,000 families.  The weekly campus worship service is planned, and led by students who are developing their own skills, and building connections to the resources within the local churches.  An international mission trip to the Dominican Republic is an opportunity for students to serve over spring break, and the senior class finishes out its high school experience serving together for a week on a class mission trip. 

Leadership development is also a component of the junior and senior high school years at PCS.  Leadership conferences are an opportunity for students to gather with other Christian student leaders from other schools, and the Student Council works to provide the funding and the opportunity for high school students to attend the leadership conference sponsored by ACSI in Washington, DC.  The senior class starts their last year of high school together, through a four-day wilderness experience that is designed to build relationships on a spiritual foundation, reconcile believers and develop genuine Christian community in preparation for the major change that is coming at the end of the school year. 

You're also not going to miss anything from an academic perspective by staying at PCS.  Even as a small school, with limited course offerings, our students can graduate from high school with as many as 24 college credits already earned through dual credit and AP courses.  The school has earned a reputation for excellence in academics, with students earning the county's highest SAT, ACT and achievement test scores.  We believe that students will achieve what is expected of them, so in writing our own curriculum guides, we aim for a high level of accomplishment, expect that our students will do the work to get there, and that approach gets the results we seek. 

The fact that our graduates can go to any college of their choosing, and be successful is evidenced by the long list of them who are enrolled in engineering, nursing, pre-med, business and pre-law programs in some of the top colleges and universities in the region.  But the fact that we are achieving our expected spiritual outcomes is evidenced by the fact that many of our graduates are pursuing careers that will enable them to do ministry, and by how many of them choose like-minded, Christian colleges and universities that share the same Biblical worldview.  And those outcomes are incomparable to things like the social atmosphere, or where your friends go to school, or whether or not you got to play football. 

Yes, it is a sacrifice to stay in Christian school through 12th grade.  But, considering these outcomes, is it any more of a sacrifice than it would be to leave these things behind?