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September 25, 2003
Homeschoolers Fight for Free Expression in 4-H

Six out of the eight newly elected State Council officers of the Florida 4-H program are homeschool students. These young people are dedicated to the success of the 4-H program and want to see it serve young people all over the state. They are also committed to 4-H's fine tradition of permitting the free expression of religion by individual members and local clubs. Unfortunately, State Council members now find themselves at odds with the state officials who run the program.

Many homeschoolers participate in 4-H, and understand that the program is typically sponsored through funding from the federal government and from a state extension program. The Florida 4-H program is sponsored, in part, by the University of Florida extension of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (IFAS). As such, some parts of the 4-H program are funded by state revenues.

Abigail Crawford is a sixteen-year-old homeschooler and member of HSLDA. When she was elected as a State Council officer, she was excited about her new opportunity to serve other families in Florida. Imagine her surprise when Dr. Shannon Washburn, the State Council Advisor for 4-H youth development, told her that officers could not pray before meals or mention God or Jesus in their "Inspirational Thoughts." After consulting with the rest of the newly elected council, Abigail called HSLDA. We directed her to the Florida State Constitution, which prohibits the state from ever taking any state revenue from the public treasury to be used directly or indirectly in aid of any "church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution." Florida Constitution Article 1, 3. The Florida Constitution distinguishes between religious activity that is paid for by the state and religious activity performed by volunteers or unpaid officers. We explained that the paid 4-H staff were bound by certain restrictions, but that volunteers and student members of 4-H remained free to express their own religious beliefs.

The executive board of Florida 4-H met for a weekend meeting in September. At that meeting, the State Council officers led the seventy-odd members of the executive board in the traditional "Blessing Song." The words to this song are simple: "We thank thee Lord for blessings here in this our own fair land. Teach us to serve you joyfully with head, heart, health, and hands." Dr. Marilyn Norman, Assistant Dean for 4-H Youth Development, wrote a letter to all state 4-H officers, which said, "4-H programs must observe a separation between church and state." She said, "basically, as a state 4-H officer, you are expected to conform to the same standards as staff and volunteers as you plan and conduct official state-wide functions on behalf of 4-H. This does not preclude anyone's expression of free speech informally and/or individually."

Several days later, 4-H leaders across the state were given "some new guidelines." In the past, volunteers had understood that activities of a religious nature could be initiated by youth, but not by adult volunteers. Now, the 4-H leaders were being told that volunteers could not wear any attire that contains a religious message of significance. They were told that 4-H clubs could not have a chaplain, even if the youth in those clubs wanted one. They were told that 4-H members were no longer permitted to initiate religious activities. Leaders were instructed to counsel 4-H members that it is not appropriate for 4-H members to choose a religious theme for the name of their club, the subject of their competitive events, or when they give the "Thought for the Day" at 4-H events.

Since so many homeschoolers participate in 4-H, and since this is an area where free expression of individual members is directly threatened by these new policies, we encourage our member families to take a position on this issue. The next 4-H executive board meeting will take place on December 6 and 7, and this issue is very likely to be discussed at that time. If you believe that 4-H members and unpaid volunteers should be permitted to express their own religious values at 4-H, please write a short, courteous letter to that effect to Dr. Marilyn Norman, Assistant Dean 4-H Youth Development, University of Florida, 4-H Youth Development Office, 3103 McCarty Hall, PO Box 110225, Gainesville, FL 32611-0225.

Please pray, and forward this information to other interested families. This is a matter that affects all Florida citizens, not just those who teach their children at home.

 Other Resources

Letter from Dr. Marilyn Norman, Assistant Dean for 4-H Youth Development 9/8/03