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Acceptable targets

Education | School hostage drill casts Christians in the role of child-killing terrorists

Issue: "Don't fence me out," April 21, 2007

On March 22, two police officers masquerading as terrorists stormed New Jersey's Burlington Township High School, pretending to shoot students and take hostages in a law enforcement emergency drill. But it was the backstory rather than the drill itself that upset some local citizens.

Here's why: The "gunmen," according to the scenario script, were "members of a right-wing fundamentalist group called 'The New Crusaders' who don't believe in separation of church and state." They were taking extreme action "because the daughter of one had been expelled for praying before class."

When details of the script leaked out, local and national Christian leaders demanded a formal apology from both the police department and the school district. The American Center for Law and Justice considered legal action, stating that "blaming hostage-taking on conservative Christians is not only inappropriate but outrageous, and raises serious constitutional questions as well."

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As the drill scenario played out, the terrorist-actors barricaded themselves in the school's media center while the township's Joint Tactical Team worked with administrators and faculty to lock down and evacuate the school. According to the Burlington County Times, the mock-terrorists did not refer to religion during the drill. Police Department public safety coordinator Walter Corter later told reporters that the scenario script neither referred to religion in general nor Christianity in particular, but to "anybody who was an extremist."

David Boudwin doesn't buy that. "If prayer isn't religion, what is it?" said Boudwin, associate pastor of Fountain of Life Worship Center, a large Assemblies of God church located about two miles from the high school. Boudwin was not amused "that they picked this scenario and painted Christians as fanatics who, if things don't go their way, will get violent."

When Boudwin heard about the drill, he called both the police department and Burlington County schools superintendent Chris Manno. Manno expressed regret, Boudwin said, but the police "didn't seem to understand what we were so upset about."

The incident kicked up a buzz in the conservative blogosphere, where a statement by Manno received ample attention: He told reporters that the school needed to "practice under conditions as real as possible . . . in order to evaluate our procedures and plans so that they are as effective as possible."

That raised questions: Would Burlington Township High School really expel a student for praying before class? With jihadism running rampant across the globe, are the Burlington County police and school district suggesting that the most realistic scenario they could imagine involved gun-toting Christians hell-bent for justice? Both questions are constitutional ones, according to the ACLJ, which noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that governmental hostility toward a particular religion violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Len Deo, director of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said he is "gravely concerned that the school would use these labels. What does it say to students who have deeply held religious beliefs . . . that it's OK to characterize their faith in such a derogatory manner?"

Beyond its immediate fallout, the incident is "one more cultural indicator that evangelicals have become an acceptable target" for pejoratives that would spark outrage if directed at another group, said Michael Farris, chancellor at Patrick Henry College and a professor of constitutional law.

Deo said his group is taking the position that the offense caused by the drill was "probably unintended . . . but if it was intentional, we believe the people responsible should be disciplined."

The school district posted a statement on its website: "The scenario chosen was intended to be generic in nature and never intended to offend any group, affiliation or religious belief. The term 'Christian' was not included in the scenario. . . . The Township and the School District regret any insensitivity that might have been inferred by this action."

But Deo wants a formal letter of apology and is urging citizens of Burlington Township to voice their concerns at the next county school board meeting, slated for April 25.

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