They have been neighbors for more than 15 years, living across from each other along Bennett Street in Herndon. Last Thursday, Herndon High School and Herndon United Methodist Church took their relationship to another, more formal, level when they signed an agreement to establish an official mutual church-school partnership. It is the first such faith-based partnership for Herndon High.
"We hope this is the start of something big," said Scott Brabrand, an assistant principal and a member of the Herndon United Methodist Church congregation. Brabrand was instrumental in formerly bringing his place of employment and his house of worship together.
Under the agreement, patterned after similar school-business partnerships like the one Herndon High enjoys with the Dulles Hyatt, Herndon United Methodist will provide guest speakers, tutors and clerical support. In turn, the high school, among other things, will provide occasional displays of artwork for its neighbor, fine-arts groups to perform at church functions and promote the partnership in all school communications. Principal Jan Leslie is excited at the prospects of working with her school's neighbor. "The faith community has a lot to offer," she said at Thursday's signing, thanking the representatives from Herndon United Methodist. "Over the years, you've helped us more than we have helped you."
The Rev. Brad Phillips, the pastor at Herndon United Methodist, said there was a real need to connect the neighboring institutions. "This is an opportunity to try to pull the church and state together, whether it's Christian, Muslim or Jewish communities, there tends to be a separation," Phillips said. "With this partnership we hope to find some common ground. It's really important that our two institutions formalized our long-running relationship. It's important that their students know that they have a group that they can depend on just across the street."
Phillips applauded Leslie's willingness to seek out unconventional relationships in the community. "The principal is sensitive to church-state issues, but she is very friendly and open to our group," the pastor said. "This environment is not nearly as strict and rigid as some other places."
<b>LISA LOMBARDOZZI</b>, the Herndon PTSA president, said the agreement will benefit both programs. Given today's current budgetary constraints, Lombardozzi said it was important for school's to look for new ways to reach out to the community. She is optimistic that the church-school relationship will be even more fruitful than the traditional business-school partnership. "A church can provide a different level of commitment than a business might otherwise be able to," Lombardozzi said. "The church and its members are looking to do more and often times they are retired and they have a real connection to the community and so they can and want to do more."
Courtney Bulger agreed. Bulger, the director of Business and Industry Partnerships for Fairfax County Public Schools, said other similar faith-based community partnerships are academically based and primarily consist of tutoring and mentoring partners.
While aware of the First Amendment restrictions that separate Church and State, Phillips did not downplay the role his church intended to play with faculty and students from Herndon High. "We hope to do some ministry among the students, at least as much as the school and the students are comfortable with," the pastor said. "But obviously, we aren't going to be walking the halls handing out flyers."
Phillips said Herndon United would begin by working closely with the school's chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and other similar groups, to strengthen their teen ministries. "The partnership is a good evangelistic tool for us," he said.
Leslie was quick to say the partnership would deal mostly with extracurricular activities, and that there would be no religious instruction and all of the programming and services would be "outside of a religious context."
<b>WHILE MOST OF THE PARTNERSHIP</b> deals with extracurricular activities and support help, one aspect of the agreement has attracted some attention. Under the terms of the arrangement signed on Thursday, Herndon High promised to "offer preferential pricing and placement of HUMC advertising in selected school sports and activities programming."
For one church-state expert, the prospect of a public school favoring one local church over another is troubling. "I find that to be very problematic. The constitution is quite clear in this respect, a school can't grant preferential treatment towards one church or favor one church over another," said Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, a church-state watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., founded by the Rev. Barry W. Lynn of McLean. "It seems to me there are some very serious legal questions surrounding that proposition."
Leslie characterized the advertising clause as standard partnership language found in most, if not all, of their business-partnership contracts. It's one way for a cash-strapped school to give back to its partner. Moments later, Leslie acknowledged that the language might not be as appropriate for a church, as it would be for a regular business partner. "To be honest, it probably shouldn't have been in there," she said on Monday.
Bulger doesn't see anything wrong with the language so long as all churches have the same opportunity to partner with Herndon High. "It's the fruit of being an official partner," Bulger said. "It's one of the few things our school's can offer in return."
For her part, Leslie said she would be interested in forming other similar faith-based partnerships.
<b>ACCORDING TO FAIRFAX COUNTY</b>, 12 schools, including Herndon High, have officially designated faith-based partnerships but Bulger speculated that there are many other schools who have not notified her office of a faith-based partner. Bulger cited the Philadelphia public school system as an example for Fairfax County to emulate. Every public school in Philadelphia has a faith-based partner and it is Bulger's goal for every school in Fairfax County to eventually have an arrangement like Herndon High.
Conn, who monitors church-state relations around the country, said that faith-based partnerships are a relatively new trend, spurred on by President George W. Bush (R), that for the most part deal with relatively harmless, mostly extracurricular types of activities. "I have no doubt that both parties entered into this agreement with nothing but the best intentions," he said, of the Herndon High and Herndon United Methodist pairing. "Because of dwindling budgets, schools understandably need to look for help from the entire community. But I have never heard of one like this, that language about preferential advertising certainly raises a red flag. They need to be very careful not to entangle church and state."
Leslie dismissed any potential complaints about a possible breach of the separation of Church and State. "If parents don't want their kids to be involved, they can keep them out. If they don't want their child to have a mentor from the church or they don't want their kid parking in the church parking lot, then it's simple, don't do it," she said. "In a nutshell, if they don't want to associate with the church, they don't have to. It's common sense."
Conn said it is not always easy to simply opt out of a church-related school functions. He said most church-state complaints originate from students who feel their First Amendment rights have been violated. "No one denies that these types of partnership aren't well intended," he said, "I don't know, however, if a Muslim student would be comfortable attending a school-sponsored performance at a Christian church across the street."
Rizwan Jaka, who is the president of All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) said he doesn't see anything wrong with partnerships like the one between Herndon High and Herndon United Methodist. Jaka said that in tough economic times, it is important for schools to reach out to many diverse segments of the community. As long as students or parents have the ability to opt out of activities, Jaka said ADAMS has no problem with the arrangement. In fact, Jaka said ADAMS would be interested in pursuing a similar partnership with Herndon High School and other schools in the area.
"We feel that any partnership between our schools and the community, whether its business, groups or faith-based, is beneficial as long as it falls within the rules of Fairfax County schools, the state of Virginia and the United States Constitution. We just cannot impose any beliefs on any students."
Bulger, who is actively promoting the faith-based initiatives, said the positive effects of these types of partnerships far outweigh any potential conflicts or constitutional concerns that might arise. Bulger said that church volunteers are never supposed to be alone in a room with students and programs are to be held in public places. "They aren't there to proselytize," she said. "That's not to say that it can't happen, but I wouldn't turn down a partnership on the off chance that something bad could happen."
Lombardozzi, the PTSA president, also scoffed at the suggestion that the partnership carries constitutional risks. "Nobody has ever said the FCA shouldn't meet on school grounds, and they do," she said. "So what's the problem?"