- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Though its members honor “the divine feminine,” Mother Grove Goddess Temple set up to share information in the Reynolds High cafeteria like any other mainline religious group.

Nonprofits such as the United Way and Girl Scouts also gathered around cafeteria tables last month to talk about what they do as part of the school’s first community resource night.

The atmosphere held none of the controversy that led Buncombe County Schools to adopt a policy allowing county high schools - for one day a year - to open their doors to religious and other organizations to distribute materials.

The issue over whether religion and religious materials belong in school erupted in 2011 after a complaint that Gideons International had been allowed to leave Bibles for students at North Windy Ridge Intermediate School.

People packed school board meetings to voice opinions on both sides of the issue then, but the practice of allowing religious groups on campus has been implemented quietly since.

Reynolds and Owen have already held their events, which are done after school and are not mandatory for students.

North Buncombe’s will take place Tuesday, and Enka High held its community resource night Thursday. Roberson’s event is Oct. 21, and Erwin will hold its community resource night on Oct. 23.

Byron Ballard, who is the senior priestess with Mother Grove Temple, admits not everyone is happy with the policy, but says “This is a good compromise given the culture that we live in here.”

“We’re balancing a fine line here with the culture. I can say that because I come out of this culture, so I understand how important all of that spirituality is and how we find ways to sit at the same table and to speak our own truth and still honor the First Amendment,” he said.

Mother Grove has about 50 members and does some of the same things as more traditional churches, including a small food pantry.

Ballard also is on the superintendent’s Faith-Based Leadership Advisory Council, which grew out of the controversy.

Her church took part in the first community resource night held at Erwin High in the spring 2013. That event served as a pilot for the other school districts, according to Erwin Principal Jim Brown.

This fall, the events are taking place at high schools in each district for the first time. “I wouldn’t say we feel we have to be there (at the events). We’re honored to be invited to that table,” Ballard said.

Brown said the first event at Erwin drew 400 to 500 people, and a wide range of organizations.

“Both faith-based and nonprofits, those from the secular world and those from the non-secular world,” he said. “I think everybody respected each other’s right to be there, and it really was a low key event. I don’t think there was any controversy.”

“Kids came in, they got a slice of pizza. The whole lobby was full of tables with different groups passing out information,” Brown said. “They came in spent a little time socializing and visiting and then they went on to ball practice or went home to get ready for school the next day.”

The Buncombe school policy spells out that the purpose of the event “is to allow organizations that offer services to children and their families an opportunity to make available written materials or literature about the organization and its services.”

Materials distributed must have a disclaimer stating that it is not “sponsored or endorsed” by the school system, and groups can’t hand out anything that is considered obscene, libelous, “is commercial in nature” or that promotes illegal or unhealthy activity.

Larger school systems are often flooded with requests to distribute materials through the school, said Janine Murphy, assistant legal counsel for the North Carolina Schools Boards Association.

It could be information on nutrition or anti-smoking material or fire safety.

“I will say that a lot of school systems, especially in bigger places, are overwhelmed by sheer volume of groups that see the schools as a great way to distribute lots of information,” she said.

One way some systems accommodate the organizations is to open the school up one day a year or one day a semester.

“And that way everybody feels they are treated equally. There aren’t any favorites,” she said.

Schools can limit who participates, such as restricting it only to nonprofit groups. But when a system “opens the forum,” that system can’t discriminate if the organization meets the criteria.

“The schools have to be viewpoint neutral. They cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint,” she said.

Ballard said the event at Reynolds allowed her church to connect with other organizations including other churches. She said she was able to talk to them about food pantries and other outreach.

“We got to interact with some churches in ways we normally don’t,” she said.

She said the feedback was mostly positive.

“I have to say we really only had one parent who kind of came around the corner and saw who we were and she didn’t literally cross herself but she turned quickly and walked away,” Ballard said. “We had several people say we’re so glad you’re here, or they didn’t know who we were and they were really curious about us.”

The events have received mixed levels of interest.

At Owen High this fall, the event drew fewer than a dozen families, but Reynolds had a bigger turnout.

“We did it the same night that we have our open house for school,” said Jeff Burleson, assistant principal at Reynolds. “With our community outreach night, our biggest thing that we were trying to get everybody to realize is we were doing a community night for anyone that is in positive support of the students at Reynolds High School.”

Organizations taking part, according to school officials, included United Way, Boy Scouts, Eblen Charities and Food for Fairview.

Seacoast Church was one of the participants.

Mitchell Moyer, director of student ministries for Seacoast Church, said his church was “primarily focused just trying to get the word out about our student service.”

Seacoast is a non-denominational Christian church based in Charleston, S.C., but with multiple campuses including one in Asheville. The Asheville campus has about 350 members at its Sweeten Creek Road location.

“There were a few parents who were just kind of inquisitive, not necessarily in a negative way,” Moyer said. “What I thought was really encouraging and was actually pretty cool is there were a number of different churches but then also churches without any Christian affiliation to them and so we kind of got to all be there together.”

Moyer said it was “kind of cool” to see that diversity of viewpoints in one place.

North Buncombe Principal Jack Evans said he is expecting from 25 to 30 organizations at the event there on Tuesday.

Everyone from fire departments to religious groups to colleges have signed up to attend, he said.

“The purpose is to provide information and resources for the youth and families of North Buncombe. That’s the whole purpose,” Evans said.

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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