What was intended to be a peaceful prayer has resulted in animosity and hostility over exclusion in Cheltenham.
The uproar began from Christopher Pender’s since-deleted Facebook post advocating a “Cover Our Schools in Prayer” event. The event was meant to gather “parents, neighbors, Pastors and believers in Jesus Christ” for a prayer at seven schools in the area Jan. 13.
“Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him,” Pender wrote. “Come out and be a part of positive change and make an investment in tomorrow’s leaders.”
Pender, a youth pastor with a show on Spiritual Connect Radio, won a seat on the Cheltenham School Board in November.
Within a few days, the event was canceled as a result of 10 emails from residents to the school board, specifically, according to the school district, against “denominational prayer on school grounds.” Four emailed their support.
“While a Board member posted the invitation to participate in this event, the District and Board were not made aware of this event prior to the Facebook posting and did not sanction or sponsor it,” read a statement from the school board. “While we are elected officials in our capacity as Board members, we also are parents, community members, teachers, mentors, lawyers, advisors, counselors, and pastors of churches.”
It also emphasized that Pender was not the leader of the event, but part of a larger group “acting in an individual capacity,” who did not intend to exclude anyone.
Both Superintendent Wagner Marseille and Pender declined further comment.
The statement said Pender was informed of the process for requesting the use of school facilities, which requires the submission of a form three weeks in advance.
Although the district cannot deny a request for any discriminatory reason, “no Cheltenham School District employee may lead, direct, or encourage students to engage in prayer or participate in student prayer practices,” according to district rules. Pender is a board member, not an employee, but is expected to uphold the same regulations.
However, the rules draw a fine line between whether a board member was acting as a representative of the district or a private citizen — “the Board member should affirmatively make it clear that they are not participating in their official capacity as a Board member but only as a community member” — so Pender’s involvement has left others speculating.
A retired Cheltenham School District teacher of 34 years, who preferred not to use her name, found it interesting that the event was scheduled to take place Saturday morning. Though it was open to anyone, she said it was already exclusionary to religious Jews because it was to occur on Shabbat.
She recalled researching Pender before he was elected — something she does for all candidates — and noticed he was a “religious fanatic.”
“I just didn’t really feel he was a viable candidate,” she said for that reason. “The other thing that really irritates me is when certain groups are excluded, all hell breaks loose, but when other groups are excluded, it’s ‘Oh, it’s OK.’”
The retired Jewish teacher said there has been a long history in the district of favoring certain groups over others, and the teacher admitted to prejudices in the system.
Superintendent Marseille has been a stringent advocate against microaggressions against black students, but the retired teacher argued there’s more than one minority in the district, like Jews.
“In this township whenever they talk about diversity, they’re always talking about just one diverse group. And when they talk about microaggressions, it seems they think it’s only happening against that particular group,” she said. “Every school board member … has an agenda.”
She was surprised Pender wasn’t reprimanded, though she credits Marseille for not pushing it further.
The Constitution stands for the separation of church and state, she added. “Even though this was taking place on a Saturday morning outside of the schools” — and not during school hours — “there’s still an issue when a school board member is the one who appears to have organized it.”
Christine Cayer spoke at the Jan. 9 public board meeting as a concerned community member.
Statements emphasized Pender was part of this event as a private citizen, but since Pender is technically a public elected official, Cayer didn’t see why it had to take place on school grounds.
Cayer, who is not Jewish and does not have children in the schools, also was uncomfortable with how the event was “a call out to a specific group of people — believers in Jesus Christ. I saw it as being an exclusive event and not inclusive of people of other faiths or people who have no religious beliefs.”
She believes the incident is part of a bigger issue of infiltrating religious influence into public schools, especially within Cheltenham School District.
“They’re elected to represent the entire township, not just a particular segment of the populus,” Cayer said.
Nancy Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the ADL received more than one call in response to the Facebook post.
“Outside groups can certainly meet at Cheltenham or any other public school if — and only if — that school will permit other outside clubs and organizations to meet at the same time, under the same terms and conditions, and that it’s clear that the school does not endorse the religious activity being done by the club,” she explained.
In line with that policy, Baron-Baer said she found nothing wrong with how the school district handled it. Even further, she views it as a teachable moment.
“This kind of issue is really hard for schools because the Constitution has separated out and granted both special restrictions and special protections to the concept of religion and the First Amendment,” she said. “So it may be good for people to hear and understand what’s behind it.”
Anne Rubin, Pennsylvania State Real Estate Commission board member, said if Pender wanted to host this prayer event personally, she said she has no problem with that. As well as there is no problem when students ask for “write my research paper” help from legit writing services when having issues with studies. But when it’s promoted using school buildings and he’s a member of the school board, she said he has to be held to a higher level.
“My understanding is there should be a separation between church and state,” she added. “I do believe the intent was nothing but good, but we have to have people in these positions that can go beyond that.”
But Rubin, who belongs to Congregation Beth Sholom, doesn’t want this alienating issue to make others look down on Cheltenham.
“How do we turn that around so that people start understanding who we are and not these incidents that keep happening?”
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