Many Southern Baptists Bypassing Public Schools

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A growing number of Southern Baptists are pulling their children out of public schools in favor of private, religious education. It's a controversial trend, with some Baptists arguing that the church should stay engaged with the public school system.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Next month, Southern Baptists will be voting on a controversial proposal. It's a resolution calling for the nation's largest Protestant denomination to develop an exist strategy for removing its children from the public schools. Some conservative Baptists say the teaching of evolution and acceptance of homosexuality have made public schools unacceptable.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, others in the church say there are practical and Biblical reasons why Baptists should remain in public schools.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

At First Baptist Church in Troy, Missouri, second-graders in Pam Thomas's class are studying sentence construction and punctuation.

Ms. PAM THOMAS (Teacher, First Baptist Church): Good question. Does God like pretty churches best? What is important to Him? You are absolutely right. They're asking a question.

ALLEN: Religion is part of every subject at this Christian academy, from grammar to math. Pastor Richard Rhea says that's the point. Five years ago, the Southern Baptist Church here in Troy decided to start a school, after it became clear that more and more parents wanted, what Rhea calls, a Christ-centered education for their kids.

Reverend RICHARD RHEA (First Baptist Church, Troy): You know, the Bible says that having respect for God is the beginning of wisdom. So obviously, in a public schools setting, they can't start there with God as a foundation for what we are learning and what we come to know about our world.

ALLEN: It's happening in Troy, Missouri and around the country. Evangelical Christians, including Southern Baptists, are turning to home schooling and Christian academies for their children's education. Currently, there are just some 700 Baptist schools across the country. But half have been founded since 1990, and more are coming online each year.

Roger Moran wants to take the movement one step further.

Mr. ROGER MORAN (Member, Southern Baptists Convention's Executive Committee): It is time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy out of the public schools, because the public schools are no longer allow to train our children in the ways that the Scriptures commands that we train them. And that is in the ways of the Lord, not in the ways of the world.

ALLEN: Moran is a member of the Southern Baptists Convention's Executive Committee and a conservative activist from Winfield, Missouri. To him the reasons for an exit strategy are clear. He sees policies that keep religion out of the public schools as a battle evangelical Christians lost years ago.

The recent federal court decision banning teaching of intelligent design and policies that he says are tolerant of homosexuality are signs, he believes, that public schools are no longer good places for Southern Baptists to educate their children. He's particularly concerned about the results of a recent Baptist study.

Mr. MORAN: Evangelical Christianity is loosing 88 percent of its children, that at the age of 18 they're leaving the church and they're not coming back. Or at least they're showing no signs of coming back. And if that is even remotely true, then what that says is we've got a serious problem.

ALLEN: Do you blame the schools for that then?

Mr. MORAN: No. I think the blame falls directly on the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, that we have failed to sound the alarm.

ALLEN: Moran says it's not just the public schools, but also movies, popular music, and other cultural influences that pull children away from the Biblical Christian perspective. This is the third year in a row Southern Baptists are being asked to consider the resolution. And each year, Jim West, a Baptist minister from Petros, Tennessee has submitted his own alternate resolution. It calls on Baptists to, quote, "Affirm the public education system and encourage its members to participate actively in the life of society."

Reverend JIM WEST (Baptist): Baptists have always had a vested interest in being involved in the life of society. Because Baptists, as all Christians are, are called to be a light to the world and salt.

ALLEN: West's resolution hasn't passed either. But that view has strong support, support that has helped prevent the exit strategy resolution from being brought to the floor for a vote. Because Baptists believe strongly in the autonomy of local churches, any resolutions passed by the convention are not binding. But many moderates and in fact many conservatives are concerned that the resolution would send a negative, even hurtful message to the thousands of Baptists who work every day in the public schools.

Reverend JOHN D. BAKER (First Baptist Church, Columbia): They are schoolteachers because they truly feel called by God to what they do.

ALLEN: John Baker is pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, Missouri.

Dr. BAKER: These are honest to goodness ministries for many a Southern Baptist teacher and administrator in our public schools. This would be very hard for me to hear. So I think this is one of the things that the leadership is having to wrestle with.

ALLEN: But activist Roger Moran is not overly concerned about whether the resolution will be adopted at this year's convention or not. More important than the vote, he says, is that Southern Baptists begin to rethink their relationship with public schools.

Mr. MORAN: If you pass a resolution, it's so what? It's often only about changing the hearts and minds of Southern Baptists and saying we need to think about it. You know, just like if you pull your kid out of a public school, but nothing else in your life changes. There's still a good chance you're going to lose your kid.

ALLEN: The first hearts and minds Moran needs to reach belong to the Southern Baptists Convention's Resolution Committee. That body will decide which measures will be brought to the floor in next month's meeting for a vote by the full membership.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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