MAYNARDVILLE, Tenn. Every year, hundreds of Union County students take a field trip for the soul. Children are excused from class, loaded onto school buses with teachers and sent to a three-day Christian revival.
I am going to ask you a question,'' an evangelical leader recently yelled to a sea of students ready for their field trip. If you are glad to be here, say amen!''
With the ardor of a pep rally, the students shouted back: AAAA-men!''
Not everyone is so enthusiastic.
Fourteen-year-old India Tracy said she was harassed and attacked by classmates for nearly three years after she declined to attend Baptist Pastor Gary Beeler's annual crusade because of her family's pagan religion.
Her family has filed a federal lawsuit against Union County schools, claiming the crusade, prayers over the loudspeaker, a Christmas nativity play, a Bible handout and other proselytizing activities in the rural school system have become so pervasive they are a threat to safety and religious liberty.
Union County officials say the system is neutral when it comes to religious activities, pointing out that the crusade is voluntary, teachers chaperone on their own time and school buses are operated by private contractors.
We do not endorse, promote or prohibit it,'' said school spokesperson Wayne Goforth.
District officials say the crusade, now in its sixth year, is like any other field trip, with parental permission required to let the children attend for two hours a day over three days. On the crusade's final day this year, April 30, more than 1,300 of the school system's 3,000 students attended.
All local boards of education have the authority to allow students to voluntarily attend these types of events,'' said Christy Ballard, legal counsel to the Tennessee Department of Educa-tion.
But, she added, it is very clear in the statute that they can't harass a student or coerce them to participate ... and, of course, they can't be school-sponsored.''
Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said school officials and Christian leaders in Union County need a crash course on the meaning of the First Amendment especially the part that separates church from state.''
Beeler, 63, who lives and preaches in Union County, said he has been contacted by communities around the country wanting to set up similar crusades, and sees nothing wrong with children getting time off from school to attend them.
The principals, the teachers, the bus drivers all have told us that they have less behavior problems after this crusade than they do before. So that tells us the positive effect,'' he said.
India said she was called Satan worshipper'' and accused of eating babies when it was revealed she was a pagan. She said she was taunted, found slurs painted over her locker and was injured when classmates assaulted her and slammed her head into the locker.
The lawsuit said school officials took no disciplinary action. In a May 2 legal response, school officials said they acted appropriately, denied the attacks happened, or said they were unaware of them.
Paganism is an ancient religious tradition that embraces kinship with nature, positive morality and the idea that there is both a female and male side of Deity.
After Christmas break in early 2002, India said three boys chased her down a hall at Horace Maynard Middle School, grabbed her by the neck and said, You better change your religion or we'll change it for you.''
She broke free and fled into the girls' bathroom. A teacher stopped the boys from following her, the lawsuit said.
That was pretty much the last straw because she was terrified,'' said India's father, Greg Tracy.
The Tracys took India out of school on Feb. 26, 2002.
A straight-A student, she belonged to the leadership-service organization Beta Club, chess club, and band. She was the only girl on the middle school football team.
Now she takes Internet courses at home and hopes to transfer to a public school in Knoxville, 25 miles away.
When was it too hard? I don't know,'' India said. On a couple of occasions it was too hard and then it got easier and then it started getting bad again and I would come home bawling my eyes out.''
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