Church tries to evict school

Village of Oak Creek, AZ – On what could be their very last day at Desert Star School the children put on a holiday program.

CHILDREN: Todos mundos cantan cantan fa la la

The small kindergarten through sixth grade school leases space in the basement of the Village of Oak Creek Community Church of the Nazarine.
In the complaint released by the attorney general's office Pastor Jeff Branaman says he has a problem with the school's mission to teach multiculturalism. Sarah Akerson is a teacher at Desert Star.

AKERSON: We teach about many cultures and religion is an intrical part of culture so we teach about religions. I just taught my children about Hanakuh and I also aught them about Christmas and I taught them about saint Nicholas but I give each one their due credit and I certainly am not having the children worship any god.

Pastor Branaman says he won't discuss his reasons behind the eviction until after a legal decision has been made. But his attorney Doug Fitzpatrick says the pastor overheard the students praying.

FITZPATRICK: He has heard on regular occasions students being led in a morning prayer that is directed to an unknown god part of the prayer is directed to the spirit of the living world. These kinds of quasi religious activities are inconsistent with the teachings of Christ and the Bible and offensive to the teachings of the church.

Principal Susan Simon says the children memorize different poems, not prayers.

SIMON: In Waldorf education the students recite verses, which are poems. They come from many different places and we've been very clear as a pub charter school we're not allowed to teach or promulgate a particular religion nor would we want to because we're not a religious school.

The pastor's attorney also indicated he saw what appeared to a meditation exercise.

FITZPATRICK: What he observed was about 10 students lying on their backs in a circle with the teacher encouraging them to get into their aura whatever that means.

Fitzpatrick says school officials signed a letter agreeing to respect the fact that they are in a Christian church.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard moved to stop the eviction on behalf of Desert Star - a state approved charter school. Goddard argues in the complaint that the church's decision to evict was illegally based on religious considerations. He wasn't available to talk to KNAU until after the hearing. Goddard contends the Arizona Civil Rights Act allows churches to discriminate on the basis of religion, but not when it offers accommodations to the general public.

School officials say the pastor misunderstands Desert Star's philosophy. It uses Waldorf methods designed to help children retain what they learn through experiences. Teacher Sarah Akerson

AKERSON: If you're teaching a child how to write and you're teaching him the letter M you might draw a picture of two mountain peaks and then out of that story and out of that poem maybe about a man on a mountain they would learn about the letter M.

Sage Costa is a sixth grader at Desert Star. He says he's been learning the Waldorf way all his life

COSTA: I think moving to a different school would be kinda bad because we just kinda got here a while ago so we started to settle in and right when we're about to settle in then we have to move again to a new place so that would be a big bummer.

The school staff worries that this conflict could affect the school's charter. They hope to stay in the current church building until June. Administrators have been searching for a new location since October when they received the eviction notice. But so far they haven't had much luck. Judge Timothy Ryan will hear arguments today in Maricopa County Superior Court.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.