Behind 'The Thaw'

Christian students claim persecution in public schools

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COEUR d'ALENE - Gary Brown wouldn't tell The Press anything more than he told a Fox News reporter about the genesis of a video in which North Idaho school-age children say that because of their Christian beliefs, they've endured ridicule and had their rights trampled on in public schools.

The video titled "The Thaw" features kids who participate in Reach America, a Coeur d'Alene-based Christian ministry and education program run by Brown. The video has been rapidly gaining viral ground on the Internet. By Saturday afternoon, it had been viewed just shy of 84,000 times.

Brown told Fox News' Todd Starnes and The Press that the idea for the video grew out of an experience some of the children had last year, when a public school teacher asked them to write an essay titled "I Believe," but wouldn't allow them to write about God.

"It set up a conversation that the kids started having," Brown said.

Brown would not reveal the name of the public school where the essay incident occurred, or the name of the teacher, "for the sake of confidentiality of the kids."

The video shows clips of the students who attend Brown's program posing questions: "Why can't I pray in school?" "Why do I have to check my religion at the door?" "Why do they teach every other theory in science except creation?"

Statements are made by the children also: "In public school, people are rude and disrespectful towards Christians," and "Bullying is common."

The kids say that sex education is "pornography," and infer that the Pledge of Allegiance isn't taking place, or when it is, students aren't participating.

The image of a cross, frozen into a melting block of ice, resting on an American flag is juxtaposed among the clips of the students. The video claims Christianity is being "frozen out" of America, that it is time for a "thaw."

Brown said most of the kids who participate in his program are from Kootenai County. When asked if the children in the video had experienced bullying in area public schools because they are Christians, Brown wouldn't say.

"Bullying is in the eyes of the beholder, I guess," he said.

The Reach America youngsters attend "online academies" or are home-schooled in the mornings, he said. The organization offers free tutoring early in the day, and according to the website, teens complete their online studies or home school assignments sent by their parents, in a structured environment under the guidance of Mindy Brown, Reach America's education director.

In the afternoons, the children participate in a leadership program led by Brown, a pastor who formerly lived in Georgia. He is a graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and served as the pastor of NorthStar Church in Coeur d'Alene. Prior to moving to Idaho, Brown worked on Capitol Hill, advising Congress on sexual abstinence education.

Brown is also the director of the Idaho Values Alliance, a social conservative nonprofit formerly led by Bryan Fischer. Brown took over IVA from Fischer in 2010, after Fischer left to work for the American Family Association.

"Learning to lead others is a skill few Christians possess. In this age of cultural upheaval young people not only need to learn a Biblical worldview, they also need to be able to effectively defend a Biblical worldview and persuade others," states the Reach America website, letsreachamerica.org, regarding Brown's leadership program.

Many of Brown's postings on the Reach America blog, accessed through the website, are highly critical of the American public education system stating that it exposes Christian children to "dangerous ideology preached in the classroom day in and day out."

When asked if his organization encourages Christians to remove their children from public schools, Brown said: "We do, from the buildings."

Surveys show, he said, that a high percentage of children leave the church after they graduate from high school.

"We're just saying there's a better way to do it," Brown said.

The advent of online schools has made it possible, Brown said, for parents to remove their children from brick and mortar schools without sacrificing public school education.

The cost of the Reach America program is $2,400 annually or $240 per month for the first youth and $1,800 annually or $180 per month for additional youth in the family. The program runs from September through June, like the public school calendar.

While Brown is encouraging Christian parents to remove their children from traditional public school systems, some of his supporters want to be involved in running brick and mortar public school districts in Kootenai County.

One of Reach America's sponsors is Full Throttle Auto Repair, which is owned by Carol Goodman, a candidate for the Post Falls school board in the May 21 election.

Brent Regan, who was appointed to the Coeur d'Alene School District Board of Trustees in December and is now seeking election to the position, is also a supporter.

Regan lists "Provided seed funding for Reach America" on his resume under "educational and political activities."

Reach America is a leadership skills program, Regan said. He told The Press he gave the organization some money a few years ago "to help bootstrap" a summer camp.

Regan, an inventor, said he's had the kids currently participating in the Reach America program out to visit the workshop on his property, where he gave them a tour and a lecture.

When Regan was asked if he's aware of Christian children's rights being denied in the schools, Regan said he hasn't witnessed it personally.

"Other than that, it's all hearsay, and as a trustee, I have to deal in fact," Regan said.

Some educators in the Coeur d'Alene School District were surprised to hear that there are students who feel they've been harassed or ridiculed in area public schools.

Deanne Clifford, principal of Lake City High School, said she's only had one student through the years approach her about being denied the right to pray in school.

Clifford said the boy told her he'd heard that Clifford said it wasn't allowed. She told him that was untrue.

"We have Wednesday morning prayer around the pole," Clifford said. "You'll get a group of 30 kids standing out there praying. I've prayed with them."

Several years ago, when her school experienced several student suicides, Clifford said praying took place every day at the school, for those who wished to.

"This goes to freedom of speech," Clifford said. "You don't lose all your rights at the schoolhouse doors."

There is an active Christian club, called Revived, on the Lake City campus.

Over at Coeur d'Alene High School, Principal Warren Olson, reports there is also a prayer group that meets regularly near the school's flagpole. And, church youth group representatives from a variety of local churches are on campus regularly, signing in as "approved visitors" and joining the students for lunch in the cafeteria.

View "The Thaw" on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYaJjiHr4rs

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