A first-grader's parents think Little League,
Boy Scouts and YMCA serve to promote religion

Atheists challenge schools over programs
by Sura Rubenstein
of The Oregonian staff

Wednesday, April 2, 1997

Nancy Powell's son, Remington, wants to play Little League. He wants to join the Boy Scouts. He's interested in an after-school basketball program run by the YMCA.

The first-grader at Portland's Harvey Scott Elementary School has brought home fliers from those groups.

Alt Tag GagBut his mother says no. She and her husband are atheists and her denial is a matter of conviction. She believes those organizations promote religion in one way or another. And she believes public schools have no business distributing their literature.

"They are shoving these religious organizations at us." says Powell, a stay-at-home mom whose younger daughter, Katherine, will be going to kindergarten at Harvey Scott next fall. "It's a chronic problem."

That's why Powell and other Portland-area atheists have asked Lew Frederick, spokesman for Portland Public Schools, to discuss the district's policies in an open meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Atheist Community Center. 415 S.W. 13th Ave.

Frederick says the district is correctly following its policies on religion in the schools. "We're just fine legally." he said.

The district's stance, spelled out in 27 entries in Portland schools' policies and regulations handbook, tries to strike a balance between neutrality on religious matters and utilizing community resources.

"We have to keep the lines pretty clear," Frederick said. "But it doesn't seem to be impossible to have a situation where people work together to provide opportunities for children.

Powell, 36, said she first became concerned last year, when Remington played T-ball and she became the parent coach.

"The parent handbook has a Little League prayer," she said. "I was just shocked."

Her team didn't say the prayer, which national Little League officials say is what happens most of the time.

Lance Van Auken, Little League's director of media relations in Williamsport, Pa., said the prayer likely dates to the beginnings of Little League more than 50 years ago. Today, he guesses that fewer than 5 percent of the leagues recite the pledge, which says:

"I trust in God. I love my country, and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win. But win or lose, I will always do my best."

"There's never any requirement for leagues to adopt that wording or for players or any participant to use that wording in any way," Van Auken said. "And that's the only place in any publication we have that refers to God or religion."

Linda Simington, Grant-Madison region director for Portland schools, said she'd reviewed Powell's complaint and felt that the school had acted appropriately.

"One of her concerns is that there is a religious or spiritual reference on the Boy Scouts pledge," Simington said. "But we allow groups like the Boy Scouts to distribute information about their programs because the district feels they order positive educational or recreational opportunities outside of school."

The Boy Scout oath begins with the pledge that "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country...."

Even though some of the groups may have a religious affiliation, Simington said the purpose of their activities is educational or recreational, not advocating for a religious point of view.

Powell focused on the YMCA's mission statement, which is "to put Christian principles into action through programs that build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all." She sees that as excluding her son.

But Robert G. Hall, executive vice president of the YMCA of the Columbia-Willamette, says the organization's programs are open to all. "There is no religious indoctrination," he said. "The Christian principles we try to instill in all our programs and participants -- children and adults are love, honesty, responsibility respect and service. You can teach those values without making it a religious teaching.

Joseph Williams principal of Harvey Scott, says the 570-student school follows the district's policy of providing information but not promoting any particular youth group. "I respect Nancy's right to express her views, Williams said. "But our role is determined by the district and the district has a policy it believes is in the best interests of the children."

Frederick said the district's bottom line is finding appropriate resources to expand opportunities for its students.

"If the atheists or another non-religious group wants to do something to help kids, we'd welcome it," he said. "Let's help the kids the best we can."