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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 24, 2003

Religious material distributed in school

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Central O'ahu Writer

One of the largest Christian youth evangelism efforts in Hawai'i history made its way to Mililani Middle School yesterday, where students passed out "student survival kits" to peers on campus.

Dozens of students distributed more than 1,000 plastic yellow bags filled with an MTV-style 3-D video, a CD, a modern version of the New Testament and other books.

Some students took the kits. Others trashed them.

"I'm very supportive of this," said Suzie Stercho, 12, a seventh-grader who attends Calvary Chapel Central O'ahu. "I think it's a good message. It's something kids should believe in, ... There's a war going in, there's so much pressure, there's drugs and sex. I think that without religion or something to believe in, there's just nothing."

But some students felt uncomfortable being approach-ed by their classmates.

"They were just there, and I didn't not want to take it. I didn't want to be rude," said Caitlin Kubota, 13, a seventh-grader at Mililani who attends a Catholic church. "But I wouldn't push my religion on my friends. I felt it was rude of them to push their religion on me."

At a time when challenges have led to the deletion of references to God from Hawai'i school codes and a city Web site, the on-campus project raised questions about the separation of church and state, and the appropriateness of such an activity at a public school.

The state Department of Education, which received several phone calls from parents questioning yesterday's distribution, said the students were within their constitutional rights.

Their efforts were part of a statewide outreach sponsored by the Jesus Hawai'i Project, a coalition of nearly 200 churches that aims to distribute about 70,000 kits to students in grades 6 through 12 at public and private schools, at a cost of about $335,000. The distributions began this week.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Hawai'i hailed the activity as a good example of allowing the constitutionally protected right to free speech.

"This is a wonderful opportunity," said Brent White, legal director with the ACLU. "Students do have a right to pass out literature. Those who are offended and don't like it certainly are welcome to pass out their own literature. ... This is just students engaging in free speech on campus. That doesn't create a separation-of-church-and-state issue."

But if the DOE allows Christian groups to distribute material, it must give the same opportunity to other religious groups, he said. White wondered whether the DOE would have been as cooperative if the request had come from a Muslim group, for example.

"It has to be done fairly," White said. "All people have the same right to free speech."

The DOE outlined parameters for distribution of the kits. Students can distribute them only during non-instructional time — before and after school, during lunch and recess — over a reasonable number of days. And they cannot force other students to take the material.

"Students have a constitutional right to distribute literature in a peaceful manner, as long as the materials are not libelous, obscene, likely to create substantial disorder or invade the rights of others," said Pat Hamamoto, DOE superintendent, in a memo to principals of public secondary schools. "With these reasonable measures and understanding in place, we are confident that the distribution of the 'Student Survival Kits' can occur in a manner consistent with law and with respect for the rights of all students."

Free-speech advocates hope it will pave the way for students to share their beliefs and ideas with each other openly and vigorously.

"We're really happy to see the DOE taking some form of commitment to free speech in our schools," said Michael Golojuch Jr., vice president of the Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church. "Now the DOE can't discriminate on content. We want to see the policy extended to this group, extended to every group fairly."

Golojuch said he hoped other groups, including activists for gay and lesbian rights, would capitalize on the opportunity.

"(The DOE) opened up the door, and other groups will be able to walk right on in," Golojuch said. "We're totally for the freedom of speech. But it has to be applied fairly and across the board."

DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen said the department had little choice but to allow the project onto its campuses, because the students are within their rights.

"We're not necessarily permitting it, but we're in no position to disallow it," Knudsen said.

And while it is the students' right to distribute the kits, other students have the right not to take them.

"Parents and students should understand that they don't have to accept the material if they don't want them," Knudsen said. "This just doesn't open the floodgates, but it definitely opens up the possibility of other faiths to do this."

More than 1,500 students statewide volunteered to distribute the kits to classmates, in the belief that introducing faith to their peers will have a positive influence on them.

"Its purpose is to be a gift of encouragement and inspiration to teenagers, to help reinforce the message that there's more to life than simply the material," said Keli'i Akina, chairman of the Jesus Hawai'i Project and executive director of Hawai'i Youth For Christ.

Brittany Large, an 11-year-old sixth-grader who distributed the kits after school, had a hard time watching her classmates trash them.

"I'm doing it so that more people can learn about God," said Large, who attends Mililani Baptist Church.

Some students wonder if allowing the Jesus Hawai'i Project to distribute Christian-based material will bring other groups to their campus touting their beliefs.

"If the Christians can come, why can't the KKK?" said Caitlin Kubota. "Maybe they all shouldn't come. I don't want so many people on campus telling us what to believe."