Collier schools report quiet, successful Religious Freedom Day

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— The Collier County School District's high schools are reporting a quiet and successful Religious Freedom Day.

Eight of Collier County's public high schools honored Religious Freedom Day from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The event “provides an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of religious thoughts and expression,” in accordance with Collier County School Board policy.

Among the organizations having district approval to participate in Religious Freedom Day were the Unitarian Universalist Church, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Islamic Center of Naples and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Organizations had to notify the Collier County School District by Jan. 10 if they wanted to participate in the event and had to agree to distribute religious information as part of the event.

The organizations were at the following high schools: Barron Collier, Golden Gate, Gulf Coast, Immokalee, Lely, Lorenzo Walker Technical, Naples and Palmetto Ridge. Although while the schools were open to the organizations, not every organization had materials at all eight schools.

Organizations were allowed to place materials on their respective tables for students to pick up if they so desire. Participating organizations were not at the tables or interacting with students.

The media was not allowed on campus during the event, for fear that the presence of reporters would deter students from taking the material. But several schools reported that the day went smoothly.

Barron Collier reported five groups came to the school and the representatives were all "compliant, friendly, and followed the rules," according to an e-mail received from Ryan Schwartz, a spokesperson with the district's Communication and Information Office.

At Lely High School, about 150 Bibles were picked up, the school reported. The kids were respectful and the event was "excellent."

Golden Gate and Palmetto Ridge high schools reported no problems and said the event was well-received by students. At Gulf Coast High School, Principal David Stump and the schools’ Assistant Principal of Curriculum Nancy Burns manned the tables. As students came to the tables, Stump and Burns told them everything on the tables were free for them to take what they wanted and share the literature with their parents. The students who stopped by the tables took literature from a variety of groups, according to Schwartz.

The Collier County School District is urging parents to spend time with their children discussing any materials students bring home or may have read.

The district and the School Board neither “endorse nor disapprove of any of the participating organizations’ beliefs or viewpoints. The forum allows participants to make students aware of differing religious viewpoints,” according to a press release from the Collier County School District.

The event is being put on as a result of a legal settlement between the Collier County School Board and the World Changers of Florida, which resolved the World Changers’ lawsuit against the board and Superintendent Dennis Thompson over the distribution of Bibles in schools.

The agreement between the district and the World Changers, which was signed by the board in October, allows organizations to distribute materials on Religious Freedom Day, Jan. 16. Because Jan. 16 was Sunday this year and Monday and Tuesday were school holidays for students, the district set Wednesday as the day material could be distributed in the schools.

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