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Ash Wednesday service at Centennial found to be “not permissible”

Last month, a teacher at Centennial High School posted to Facebook about an Ash Wednesday service that Fr. Joel Phelps was providing to students before leaving on a class field trip. 

Today, it was learned that after an internal investigation, Unit 4 has deemed that action as “not permissible” under Board Policy, the Equal Access Act, or the Establishment Clause. 

And while Unit 4 will not disclose whether or not those staff and faculty who participated will be punished or not, let me state for the record that I do not believe that such an act should warrant anything but a reminder on the reasons why such an action is impermissible. 

What the teacher and admin in question did was, in fact, noble. They were, in my estimation, honestly trying to assist students in their pursuit of something that was important to them. That’s precisely what a teacher is supposed to do, and for that, they should be applauded. 

But if there are people reading this that somehow believe that Christian Privilege is not a very real and extremely devastating thing for this nation moving forward, let me please disabuse you of that notion. 

To wit:

Imagine, if you will, that there were a few Wiccan students, or even more dramatic, Satanist students, who were going on the choir field trip that morning. And there was a sacred, ritualistic Wiccan or Satanic practice that was to be performed that morning that required leadership to be present. 

Had those students come to their teacher and ask that the High Priestess or the Dark Overlord be invited to the school before the school choir trip, how do you think that request would have been met? 

Exactly. And don’t play pretend. Just, please — don’t. 

This is a true teaching moment for Unit 4, who, admittedly, has had more than a few of them over the past few years — more than they probably want. 

Between an important Ferguson related protest gone awry, to having to work with the most incompetent School Board that you could ever imagine, this incident is mild by comparison. 

But important nevertheless. 

Fortunately, there’s a top level Superintendent at the helm, and a ton of amazing staff and faculty right down along the line. 

I think Unit 4 would be wise to make sure that no one is punished in any significant way, and that the teacher actually be commended for her thoughtfulness. It’s a matter of a few simple corrections.

And that’s the good news. 


From Stephanie Stuart, Unit 4 Director of Communications: 

Following the Ash Wednesday service at Centennial High School, Champaign Unit 4 School District Administration worked with a third party legal team to conduct an investigation of the situation.

We understand that in this case Unit 4 staff members intended to accommodate students. This investigation was not a reflection of those staff members’ dedication or commitment to our students and families. We are very proud of the work taking place and are fortunate to have the involved staff as part of our Unit 4 team.

The legal protections guaranteed by Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution benefit both those who are religious and those who are not. The Equal Access Act allows student-led groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes be able to meet at the high school as long as meetings take place outside of class time. Staff members are able to supervise these student-led activities but not participate.

The investigation of this incident concluded that the Equal Access Act does not apply to the Ash Wednesday service because the service was not conducted by a student group and involved a Unit 4 staff member receiving ashes. Accordingly, the Ash Wednesday service was not permissible under Board policy, the Equal Access Act, or the Establishment Clause.

In accordance with our District policy and out of respect for our staff members, the District will not comment on whether or not disciplinary action will be taken in this case.

Above all, the Ash Wednesday incident has presented an opportunity for the District to provide additional support and training to staff members regarding the laws governing religion in public schools. It is the intent of the District for all staff members to be aware of and act in accordance with Board Policy and other laws governing our District.

We appreciate everyone’s patience as it was important to take the time needed to thoroughly review all information.

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