Colton’s Bench a Source of Controversy – Scripture May Be “Unconstitutional”

   Written by on October 5, 2017 at 11:35 am

bench photoCHARLOTTE COURT HOUSE – Last year the family and friends of Colton Osborne, a Charlotte County teenager who died in a tragic ATV accident, donated a memorial bench to the athletic field at Randolph-Henry High School.  The memorial bench included the Bible verse, Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and was dedicated on March 16, 2017.

Last week WSET arrived and did a story on the bench and on the possibility that it violates the Constitution.  The airing of that story ignited a storm of protest in favor of the bench. An online petition was formed and at this time has 5050 signers who support leaving the bench.

The story has been picked up by national news and television stations.

With the current controversy over the bench and the Bible verse, Charlotte County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Leonard gave the following statement:

“Last year, a community member indicated an interest to high school administration to give a bench for the baseball field in memory of a student. The next contact was that the bench was ready and had been placed. It was not what anyone from the school administration expected to see at the entrance of the athletic facilities.  However, it was a loving gesture so we let it be. This year, two more memorial requests arrived with one being a request for another memorial bench to be attached to the front of Randolph-Henry at the auditorium entrance. The need for policy arose for approving memorial benches such as the placement (front of RHHS, the back of RHHS, athletic fields only), specifications, maintenance costs, responsibility for ownership of damages, future use of school grounds and fairness and equality to all students.  I asked that all requests for memorials be placed on hold until a policy could be developed and brought to the Board for adoption so that we could proceed fairly and equitably with all requests.”

Leonard then contacted the school board attorney Craig Wood for guidance on formulating a memorial policy. Wood advised her of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause which prohibits government from establishing a religion and from favoring one religion over another or from favoring religion generally over nonreligious beliefs.

Public schools are required to adhere to the laws in order to receive public funding such as State and Federal funds and to avoid legal consequences. Charlotte County is a rural school system that relies primarily on those public funds to provide an education for our students.

The school board apparently discussed the issue in closed session at their August meeting. At least two members of the board posted statements in favor of the bench on their personal Facebook accounts following the meeting.

While it appears the majority of Charlotte County citizens seem to want to leave the bench as it is, it remains to be seen if the intense publicity regarding the issue achieves the desired results.

When asked how the situation could be resolved Leonard responded,   

“The response is two-fold. First, since being advised by our school attorney that CCPS has a memorial that violates the law and we are at risk for a lawsuit by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), administration has been working privately with the family to get their input as to whether to move the bench to another location that is not owned by a public school, remove the verse, or cover the verse.  Secondly, draft policy is being worked on with the School Board attorney regarding pending and future requests for memorials. That policy would have to be reviewed by the Board and voted on by the Board in open session for adoption.

“In closing, this is a legal issue confronting our school system which could jeopardize state and federal funding which we rely on to educate our students. We are a public school system. We cannot pick and choose which laws we follow.”

Leave a Reply