Life Choices

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Life Choices: Getting Religion to Public School Students in Brevard County Florida

[All italicized bracket snarking is 2014]

This is a very serious accounting of the fiasco of Life Choices in Brevard. I'm keeping it pretty much like it was back then, when I was very serious about fiascos.
But you might want to skip to the part about the Life Choices presentation itself. What a hoot!


the original announcement
first complaint--to principal Thomas
Palm Bay Police involvement
*what a Life Choices presentation looks like*
the complaint makes the news
commissioner Jackie Colon reprimands the school board
school board member Amy Kneesy takes a stand
letter to the editor of Florida Today
County Commissioner Helen Voltz insults me
Voltz says she's "fed up" with her constituency
Press release regarding the strangeness of Helen Voltz
Spring 2006: Here we go again
 

On October 19, 2005, I received the following announcement on the Palm Bay High School parent email list:

Dear Parents,
Andretti Thrill Park, Calvary Chapel of Melbourne, and the Palm Bay Police Department have joined together to bring a hard-hitting, motivational life skills program called, Life Choices to you. This dynamic, state-of-the-art multimedia presentation uses humor, live music, videos, sketches, and real life experiences to deliver a message of hope and acceptance. 

Life Choices addresses topics such as promiscuity, abuse, and emotional pain. Their goal is to provide every student with the necessary tools to successfully navigate through the pain of a broken home, the struggle for peer approval, and the emotional suffering associated with rejection and ridicule. 

Topics included in the Life Choices event: 

  • Self-respect

  • Kindness and respect and understanding toward others

  • Broken or troubled parent/child relationships

  • School violence and the life of Rachel Joy Scott and her killers at Columbine High School

  • Sexual promiscuity/abstinence

  • Drug and alcohol abuse

  • Suicide

  • Breaking unhealthy generational patterns

  • Goal/life planning

The Life Choices event for Palm Bay High School will take place on:

       Tuesday, November 8, 2005
       7:00pm-9:00pm
       Calvary Chapel of Melbourne

Several things struck me about this announcement. First, was the mention of Rachel Joy Scott. I wondered if she wasn't the girl whose family claimed she died after saying she believed in God at Columbine. A quick look at her legacy website confirmed it. [No, that was Cassie Bernall. Rachel was also a Christian, however, and was apparently mocked for her faith when shot.] Then the mention of abstinence called up a red flag. The idea that this program might be religious in nature occurred to me. That led me to investigate this program. [Of course it was religious! Who else would create this passion play, drag it all over the country, and encourage public school students to come to a church to see it? Christians, that's who. Secular people educate, religious people preach.]

You can find Life Choices Ministries on the links page at Rachel's site listed under "Christian Resources." The Life Choices website itself was/is not overtly religious. It's as if they have gone out of their way to leave religion out of it. (Note that on 11/05/05 the domain names lifechoicespresents.org and lifechoicespresents.com expired pending renewal or deletion. 04/19/06: Now that we're faced with another round of the program here in Brevard, I checked it out again and all seems well in the Life Choices web.) [Update: 2014: If you go there now, it looks like some kind of sports blog, but it's still linked to Rachel's page. Something is very odd there... But apparently, they are no longer doing the gig.]

A friend of mine sent me a link to a newspaper article (that I can no longer find) that described complaints about this program being shown at a school assembly. Space Coast Freethought Association thought this was enough information to voice a complaint with the principal of PBHS.

Because it was now obvious that this was a religious presentation, the connection with the Palm Bay Police Department became a concern.

We sent Principal Thomas a letter of complaint on October 27, 2005. He responded saying the Life Choices even was handled no differently from any other community event. [Which was a lie. Community events are advertised throughout the community. Life Choices was advertised ONLY through our schools and Andretti Thrill Park. This was not a community event--it was a religious service designed to bring Jesus to public school students.]

I asked the host of the parent email list if posters or flyers would be at the school regarding this event and he said he believed flyers would be posted in the rooms. I went to the school and didn't see any flyers or posters on campus. But my son came home with a flyer on November 7 (note this is after Americans United contacted the school). The flyer was handed to him by his sixth period teacher. He also said there was a poster in the office. 

I also learned from a source connected with Stone Middle School that a message was sent to all teachers there instructing them to hand out flyers to students. I also learned that a Police Athletic League bus would be at the school to transport kids who needed a ride to the church. Despite warnings from AU, Stone teachers handed out flyers on Friday, November 4. And when I went to the school on Tuesday (the show for these two schools was on the same night) November 8, there was indeed a PAL bus with city tag number 219455 at the school. As far as I could tell, it picked up one student.

Each person I spoke to at the Palm Bay Police Department claimed no knowledge of this event or the department's sponsorship of it. Finally, I received a call from Deputy Chief Muldoon on November 8 who said the Palm Bay Police Department was one of the sponsors of the program along with the school board (he admitted that was unofficial), Jackie Colon's office, and various local businesses. He said the local businesses were fronting the money, not the police. He didn't know anything about the buses being used to transport students from Stone Middle School.  

After I explained to him that the police were sponsoring a religious service for Christian teens that used emotion and fear to appeal to kids without offering any real life skills, he asked me if I had an alternative program to offer. As if that had anything to do with the unconstitutional sponsorship by the police department.

Americans United faxed a complaint to the superintendent, and the principals of PBHS and Stone on Friday afternoon, November 4. It was completely ignored as far as I know. [Of course it was ignored. These people didn't care then and they don't care now.]

According Calvary Chapel's website, the Life Choices program would be presented the week of November 7, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at the church at 7 p.m. The Wednesday night service was to be at Bayside High School. When I called Bayside to confirm this, the secretary checked a poster in the office to find out details.

Because of Calvary Chapel's boasted technology, I was able to watch the Life Choices program at home on my computer. This is what I saw on Monday, November 7.

[The Amazing Vulgarity of Religion on Display! for your enjoyment...]

1. County Commissioner Jackie Colon opened the presentation. She invited Pastor Mark Balmer, the Miller family (police officer/donor), Andretti Thrill Park representatives, and the Phillips onto the stage. After reading a resolution of endorsement and support by the County Commission, she presented them all with large, framed certificates of appreciation from Brevard County. [Isn't that sweet? They all colluded to get public school kids to the church and now they're congratulating themselves on a job well done.]

2. Everyone was asked to stand. There was a prayer. Colon prefaced the prayer with "just like we do at the beginning of each county commission meeting." [Snap! Take that you heathens.] Then they said the Pledge. [Of course they pledged allegiance to the US of A. Because Amerka is a Christian country! No doubt a few of them wanted to break out the guns next.]

3. Colon invited the sheriff to the stage for a little speech. He was reluctant and just thanked everyone for coming. [He knew I was watching him with my beady atheist eyes... heh heh]

4. Colon then said "greetings" were sent by the following:
Rep. Dave Weldon [shudder]
Rep. Ralph Poppell [no clue who that is]
Board of County Commissioners [but of course]
And the following were present:
Police Chiefs [guardians of our rights]
Elected Officials [pompous blowhards]
Representatives of Brevard County [the elite, I guess]

[Okay, now, hold the fuck on. There were several of these Life Choices services, right? Did these nitwits go to all of them so they could stand up and be seen in the largest church in the county? God, what a waste of time and lipstick.]

5. The program is a church service for Christian teens. It employs emotional and fear-based appeals to not smoke, do drugs, drink alcohol, view pornography, and have sex. It was stated that teens do these things because they want to be loved and they have a "hole" inside them that they are trying to fill up. [God, how many times has a Christian approached me with the "hole" theory of atheism?]

John Phillips repeatedly connected these bad behaviors to death, once pretending to be a mouse (teen) after cheese in a mousetrap (sex) and acted out the mouse's twitching death. [I remember that! OMG. It was frickin' hilarious!] Ted Bundy's final video interview was excerpted to show the peril's of viewing pornography. [That's right, kids. Porn leads to murder and don't you forget it!]

6. No concrete life skills for refraining from these behaviors or dealing with their causes were offered or discussed. However, it was made clear that Mr. Phillips overcame his alcoholism and other bad behavior by turning his life over to God. And it was made clear that Rachel Joy Scott chose to "surrender her life to the lordship of Jesus Christ."

7. Debbie Phillips said that drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. were not noble reasons to die. "What is a noble reason to die?" She asked. Then she told the doubtful story about how Rachel Scott died. She said Eric Harris said to Rachel, "Where's your god now? What would Jesus do? You still believe in your god, Rachel?" And Rachel supposedly said calmly, "You know...I do." And then Eric shot her in the head. [I'm pretty sure there was a lot of confusion about who said what. Many have claimed that Cassie Bernall did not actually say "yes," and that her killer didn't ask the question. Perhaps it was Rachel who did this. But perhaps Rachel's story isn't true either. I don't think it matters; it's mythology now.]

8. In video clips, Rachel Scott's brother claimed that prayer works and is powerful. In one clip, there is angelic music in the background as he describes praying to god during the Columbine attack. He portrays himself as a hero, after god took away his fear, leading other kids to safety and then praying with them afterwards. "Prayer does something. Prayer is powerful." He said. [I never can understand this disconnect. His sister was murdered. And yet, God led him to safety. How do people reconcile this?]

9. Rachel Scott's mother Beth spoke and said Rachel's legacy is that she died for what she believed in, then she asked, "What are you willing to die for today?"

10. Debbie Phillips talked about prayer. She said the she believes that when Klybold's and Harris' bombs didn't go off in the cafeteria (supposedly if they had, 500 students would have died) it was "God's mercy on our nation." [ditto. ibid. and all that.]

11. Both John and Debbie Phillips claimed that in this country we have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. [Oh, my freakin' god, people.]

12. In discussing Rachel Scott's last days, Debbie claimed Rachel was "planning where she would spend eternity."

13. It was announced that Life Choices counselors were waiting at the front of the room. John Phillips told the kids they could talk with them, or cry with them.

14. A follow-up curriculum was offered free to teachers at the table in the back where other literature was available.

15. At the end of the program, a cross about 6 feet high was brought onto the stage. There were things hanging on it and attached to it. Debbie Phillips said students who had pledged to change their lives were welcome to come up on stage and add something to the cross. This cross was apparently at Rachel's gravesite for a while until replaced with a marble one.

Because this was an overtly religious program, the involvement of our public officials and the manner in which they enticed our public school students to attend was ugly. [You got that right.]

During this complaint, I was in contact with James Dean of Florida Today. He wrote an article about it. (The article has since expired into the paid archive.) Somehow, Patrick Terpstra of Channel 13 news found himself reading my blog (I'm flattered) and gave me a call. He did a story on the controversy on November 7 and SCFA's Vice President was quoted in the piece.

Apparently District 5 County Commissioner Jackie Colon, at the November 11, 2005 County Commission meeting, reprimanded the Brevard County School Board for settling in the graduation suit and dared them to act on this Life Choices complaint.

On Wednesday, November 9, on AM 1240, school board member Amy Kneesy called in to tell listeners that the school board would not "buckle under this time." [Ah, yes. It was all about winning, wasn't it? Never about Constitutional rights.]

Clearly these government representatives are incapable of understanding what is right and what is wrong and are only interested in how many times they get their way and how much religion they can push on a religiously diverse population without getting into trouble.

I felt that James Dean's article in Florida Today allowed government representatives to misstate the facts in this case without rebuttal. So I wrote a letter to the editor about it and copied it to all of the county commissioners and the members of the school board, as well as the principals of PBHS and Stone. (I felt a need to reply to Thomas but didn't want to waste much time on him.)

This was the letter:
Editor, Florida Today
James Dean's article regarding the promotion of Life Choices Ministries' program in our public schools failed to make one very important point. This program is not like any other community program. It was only advertised through the schools. Each night the program was presented for an audience culled from certain local schools. For this reason, school and government representatives are being deceptive when they claim they treated this program just like any other.
Jackie Colon claimed that anyone who didn't want to attend could stay home. But she failed to inform us that none of the information given to parents and students alerted them to the blatantly religious nature of the program. This is nothing more than stealth proselytizing [Oh, snap!] through our public schools. They bribe the kids with a free ticket to Andretti Thrill Park and then preach at them. No concrete life skills were offered to the students to help them deal with the behaviors discussed or their causes. It was implied, however, that turning one's life over to Jesus Christ would do the trick. Brevard County officials should be ashamed; but they're not. They don't care one whit about the religious freedom of our students.

I received a response from County Commissioner Helen Voltz which was very rude. An email conversation ensued with her that ended up with her insulting me and making it pretty clear I would be damned to hell.

Then I heard through a friend that someone else complained to Voltz about the Life Choices program, or separation of church and state, and this was her reply (copied as I received it so the goofs are her own):

----- Original Message -----
From: "Helen Voltz" <helen.voltz@[not anymore]>
To: [recacted]
Sent: Friday, November 11, 2005 12:01 PM

I will never appologize for my beliefs or my statements. Last time I
checked this was still America. You can do what you need to do, but I can
tell you I am just plain fed up with people like you. I will continue to
pray for you.

Helen

Helen Voltz
Brevard County Commissioner, District 3 [not anymore]
phone # redacted (Office)
phone # redacted (Cell)

 

Funny how you can say something so disrespectful to your constituent and then sign off with "Helen."

And another friend received this response when she tried to stand up for me against Voltz's insult:

"I happen to believe that Christianity IS the only way. However, you have every right to believe as you do and it is not my intent to try to persuade anyone. I think you just don't get it. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them because they are spiritually discerned." We don't happen to use scare tactics. If I can convince someone to believe in something, someone else will be able to convince them otherwise. You are missing one thing: Christ is the only one who can change someone's heart. I am only the messenger, He does the heart work. I can understand why your group does not desire to recruit members; you don't have anything to offer. I don't really care who tries to recruit anyone for anything because I am comfortable with myself and what I believe. I would not try to deny anyone any belief. Jesus left us with the great commandmend [sic]: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." Mark 16:15. What happens to someone's heart is up to God, not me. I will be ultimately responsible to do what that commandment indicates, and to have to answer for it, He does the rest. I am not interested in "going after someone" for something they might believe or a flyer they might pass out. I'm sorry you feel as you do; it is your right to do so, but I can't help praying for you & your group of non-believers. One last thing; did you go to see the Life Choices program? I think I can safely say NO, you did not attend. Well, I did and it was an excellent program and, for your information, no altar call was made. However, I can guarantee you that there were lives changed for the better that night. Remember, Christ is always calling, and is always available when you may need Him. Hopefully you will never have to go through the death of a child.
God Bless,
Helen Voltz"

This time Voltz used her private email address. Perhaps she wised up a bit? Nah, doubt it.

The following press release went out on November 15 [I don't recall whose press release this was so I've redacted the email address attached to it. Other email addresses are also redacted for obvious reasons.]:

For Immediate Release

November 16, 2005
For more information email: [redacted]

Volatile Voltz Does it Again, Warns Woman of Impending Damnation:

County Commissioner Challenges Local Christian's Loyalty to Christ

MELBOURNE--While the preceding headlines sound like they're right out of a satirical magazine, they aren't. When local Lutheran, Michele Paccione, wrote to Brevard County Commissioner Voltz complaining that she felt the commissioners recent endorsement of the religious Life Choices youth program was a violation of the separation of church and state, Voltz responded on November 14th by telling Paccione she can't be both a Christian and believe in the constitutional separation of God and government. She wrote:


"What an oxymoron!!!! A Christian who believes in the separation of church & state? What??? What is your definition of a Christian? The Bible says a Christian is "Christ-like." Do you think for one minute that Jesus would support the separation of church & state?"

Responding to Paccione's claim that she was embarrassed by the commissioners decision to disregard the separation of church and state, Voltz wrote:

"I'm the one who is embarrassed that people like you would even write an e-mail like your [sic] wrote and call themselves a Christian. You are the one who should be ashamed of yourself."

Reminiscent of her reply to a local non-Christian woman's complaint over the same issue, Voltz once again forewarned the woman of impending damnation.

"But, you know what, we will both have to answer for what we have done, or what we have not done."

Call for Action:

Currently local activists are planning an action to stress our unwillingness to allow our community to degrade the cherished Constitutional Separation of Church and State. If you would like to be informed of forthcoming actions regarding the separation of church and state, please email [redacted]

How You Can Help Right Now:

1) If you haven't already written to the commissioners please do so. Consider sending the same letter to Florida Today (contacts below)

2) Ask your house of worship's spiritual leader and/or fellow congregants to write to both the commissioner and Florida Today. At least two letter writers, Rev. Ann Fuller and Michele Paccione have already been told that their letters will appear in the paper. Let's keep up the heat!

Commissioners:
[redacted]

Florida Today: [redacted] Don't forget to send include your real name, town of residence and a daytime contact number.

 


April 2006
When I received a copy of an announcement Andretti Thrill Park was emailing customers, I felt that flea feeling. You know, that feeling like you have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the huge entity you depend on for your freedoms. But all is not bad. All is not good either, but I'm over expecting fairness.

According to the Andretti email, flyers would be distributed to school students in Brevard County regarding the Life Choices event to be held at Calvary Chapel of Melbourne.

SCFA Vice President George Ricker emailed the Brevard County School Board on April 18 regarding the matter. According to an email he received from the Area I Superintendent of Schools, Dr. MacIntyre [via school board member Amy Kneesy], County Commissioner Jackie Colon contacted the school board requesting they hand out flyers advertising the Life Choices program again in our public schools as they did last year. MacIntyre said, "She is sponsoring it." He said that the flyer would be discussed with the senior staff on April 24.

 Vice Chairman of the School Board, Janice Kershaw, contacted Ricker on April 25 to say that the district did not plan to "distribute" flyers in the schools, but they would be made available to students in the offices.

On April 28, I received an email that originated with Dave Miller of the Palm Bay Police Dept. and appears to have gone out to email addresses within the department, which reads, in part:

"We have again teamed up with Andretti Thrill Park and Calvary Chapel of Melbourne to bring the Life Choices team back to Brevard County."

 Attached to the email was a flyer for the event. It reads:
"Andretti Thrill Park, Calvary Chapel, and the Palm Bay Police Department have again joined together to bring a hard-hitting motivational life skills program called Life Choices to the Palm Bay/Melbourne area."

The Palm Bay Police Department is a branch of our government and they are in violation of our First Amendment rights by sponsoring this Christian event and using Department time and email on it.

[Well, Life Choices worked so well they don't need it anymore, apparently. All the kids in Brevard County are now well-behaved. The girls no longer give their flowers to the boys. They don't do drugs, or drink, or dance, or listen to heavy metal. All is well, thanks to Life Choices! Good job Palm Bay Police Department! Good job noble Christian representatives! You did it!]