A Hilton Head Island Elementary School winter field trip scheduled for the first time at a Christian conference center has upset at least one parent, who called a camp promotional video “outrageous,” and has caught the attention of South Carolina’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hilton Head Island Elementary School is offering fifth-graders a three-day field trip in January at St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center, which is run by the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. The center offers Christian-based summer camps and environmental-based programming during the school year on Seabrook Island just south of Charleston, according to its website.
The school sent a field trip permission slip to parents earlier this month, which read: “Going to camp is optional, although we think your child will benefit immensely from this experience.” Those who don’t attend will learn the same material at Honey Horn during the same week of the trip.
The slip asked parents to indicate whether or not their child will attend and return the slip to school by Sept. 22.
Still, the number of students opting out of the trip is unknown, district spokesman Jim Foster said Friday.
The camp’s executive director, the Rev. Bob Lawrence, pointed to a long history of other public schools in South Carolina attending the camp and estimated 95 percent of school groups that attend are secular. The course offerings incorporate state science standards into its curriculum of courses such as animal tracking, orienteering and entomology.
His remarks did not assuage parent Elizabeth Greenberg, who said she will not send her fifth-grade son to the camp. She is Jewish, but said her primary opposition to the camp is more a matter of principle.
A job description for the camp position that works directly with students reads: “(Seeking) conservative evangelical Christian Naturalists ... focus in education or biology/environmental science related fields is preferred, but not necessary ... a strong committed love for Jesus is of utmost importance.”
Lawrence acknowledged that his entire staff is Christian.
“We are a Christian ministry and that’s clear in our name,” he said. “We have chapels on our property. It’s who we are.”
For South Carolina ACLU legal director Susan Dunn, the facility itself is not an issue, but its limitations in hiring could potentially be a problem.
“If they see this as a ministry and an opportunity to reach out to ‘unchurched’ children, that’s a problem,” she said.
“Unchurched” is how a camp employee described non-Christian students in a promotional video titled, “Barrier Island Environmental Education Program,” the same program Hilton Head Elementary students will attend.
“I was literally nauseous as I watched this video,” Greenberg said. “It got worse and worse.”
“One of the most significant things about this ministry — and I call it a ministry, because it truly is — is that it gives us the opportunity to impact the lives of so many children to be and live in a Christian environment among a staff who loves Jesus and who loves kids and even if they don’t have the chance to talk about it, it’s evident in how they simply live their lives,” director Lawrence said in the video.
Greenberg said she also was bothered by the video’s hints of addressing religion outside of formal instruction.
“We aren’t able to share that much in the classroom setting with the public students, but we are able to work with them on the way back from a crab dock,” director of education David Gardner said in the video. “We’ve got 20 minutes of walking without an actual class where we can throw our questions and students can chat with us.”
Lawrence disputed this, saying staff only discuss religion if the topic is initiated by students, teachers or chaperones.
After informed by the newspapers that the video is posted on the camp’s website, Lawrence wrote in an email that he was unaware of this and can understand the eyebrow-raising it may have prompted from public school parents.
“(The video) was done to show how that program is intentionally religious when schools are asking for it,” he wrote. “The vast majority of what we do is secular.”
The video was not intended for promotion to public schools, Lawrence wrote Thursday evening, adding that the video has been removed from its website. As of 5:30 p.m. Friday, it has not.
(The video) was done to show how that program is intentionally religious when schools are asking for it. The vast majority of what we do is secular.
St. Christopher Barrier Island executive director Rev. Bob Lawrence
The school’s permission slip does not touch on the organizations’ religious leanings aside from its name, St. Christopher’s.
Greenberg said she asked Hilton Head Island Elementary principal Sarah Owen to better inform parents about the camp and she said Owen refused.
Owen did not return two calls and two emails Thursday and Friday.
Greenberg’s husband, Rex Garniewicz, is executive director of the Coastal Discovery Museum, which manages Honey Horn, the alternative trip option.
The museum has a financial stake in the matter, $45 per student, he admitted. “But my concern for this case is as a parent, not as museum director. I’m just trying to make sure parents know what this camp is about.”
The museum reimbursement is far less than what the camp costs, $200 per student, and paid for out-of-pocket, he said.
Half of the camp’s cost is covered by Title 1 funds, federal money available to schools with large populations of low-income families, according to the permission slip.
Greenberg and Garniewicz voiced their concern to the state Department of Education earlier this week.
Deputy state superintendent Cathy Hazelwood responded in an email: “If staff proselytizes the public school students, then we have a problem...Based on the information provided on its website, St. Christopher’s Camp appreciates the distinction between providing its barrier island program to public school students and to private school students.”
Hazelwood wrote that she had seen the video and notified the Title 1 office but determined that “this is ultimately a local school district decision.”
District spokesman Foster said the school will have a more detailed conversation with parents about the camp since the issue has come up.
“And the school has had conversations with the camp and made clear what is permissible with parochial school students isn’t with public,” he said.