Biblical training session for Wisconsin teachers raises legal questions

District offering session with biblical ties

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

FORT ATKINSON, Wis. (WISC-TV) -- A planned training course for Fort Atkinson School District teachers and staff members is raising legal concerns because of its religious ties.

According to Superintendent Dr. Lynn Brown, a professional development day called “Wise and Well – A Staff Wellness Experience” offers 12 voluntary breakout sessions, including "Happiness Is – A Biblical Perspective on True Joy," that will be presented by district teacher Dave Pazurek and Barrie Elementary Principal Brent Torrenga.

John Wedge, with the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said the session raised some red flags for him when he heard about it last week, and he cautioned the district to seek legal counsel before offering the session.

Ryan Jayne, a staff attorney with the nonprofit organization Freedom from Religion Foundation, said even though the course is optional and doesn’t involve students, it violates the Constitution by endorsing religion.

"This is the school district presenting to its teachers a specifically Christian message about happiness and joy, so besides being kind of tangential to professional development, is simply religious development, and that is not an appropriate activity for a public school to be promoting,” he said, adding that a teacher who felt marginalized at the seminar could sue. “They would have a solid argument that the government is promoting religion in general and Christianity in particular.”

In a statement, Brown said she's consulting the district's legal counsel about legal concerns, adding that she “encourages staff to consider the eight areas of wellness for themselves, so that they can help students as part of the District’s focus on social-emotional development,” and stressing that the experience will not involve students.

Several parents told News 3 Now that the session option doesn’t worry them.

“That's a person's option. Their choice to do it. If they want to do it, fine. If they don't want to do it, that's fine too,” said Millie Kaiser, who has a great-grandchild in the district.

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