Letter alleges discrimination by Greenfield School Committee against Christian academy

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 07-25-2023 5:12 PM

GREENFIELD — A law firm specializing in religious civil liberties is arguing that by tabling the application for Providence Christian Academy, the School Committee unlawfully discriminated against the new private school looking to open on Chapman Street this fall.

Following the committee’s July 12 meeting, during which Providence Christian Academy’s application was first discussed, Liberty Counsel sent a demand letter to the Greenfield School Department, largely highlighting curriculum concerns that led the committee to table its discussion until August. In particular, committee member Elizabeth de Neeve brought up the curriculum’s teachings related to slavery, evolution and modern psychology.

De Neeve also spoke of alleged discrimination against the LGBTQ community at schools that use the Abeka curriculum — a Bible-centric education established by the founders of the Pensacola Christian Academy in Florida, and the same to be used at Providence Christian Academy. That curriculum has been approved for homeschooling by the district.

“Setting aside the numerous fallacies and scandalous misrepresentations espoused by Ms. de Neeve, the religious beliefs which she maligned and denigrated have been espoused in mainstream Christianity for thousands of years, and by Providence Moldovian Baptist Church since its inception,” Liberty Counsel’s letter reads. “These beliefs do not constitute valid grounds for [the Greenfield School Committee] to deny the church school’s application.”

De Neeve, however, emphasized in a phone interview that her concerns weren’t based on religion.

“I merely read their curriculum back to them,” she said. “If that bothers them, then this situation is the ultimate gaslight. It’s a problematic curriculum.”

Providence Christian Academy, which would operate out of the former Greenfield Alliance Church at 385 Chapman St., is a ministry of the Providence Moldovian Baptist Church on Federal Street, according to academy Chair Mike Placinta. Roughly 30 students are expected to enroll in kindergarten through fourth grade starting this fall.

School Committee Chair Amy Proietti previously explained that while it’s not something the committee is asked to do often, this approval is part of a standard Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) process for reviewing a private school that plans to operate within a municipality.

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In reviewing Providence Christian Academy’s application, committee member Kate Martini sought more information on the school’s reading curriculum, which she said focused primarily on phonics with a more limited emphasis on phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, background knowledge and comprehension instruction.

Committee members ultimately voted 4-2 in favor of tabling the discussion to allow time for more information gathering, with Proietti and member Susan Eckstrom voting “no.” Mayor Roxann Wedegartner, who also serves on the committee, was absent.

In response to the vote, the law firm reached out on behalf of the school, stating that to forestall further legal proceedings, “corrective action” was required on or before Aug. 10.

Reached on Monday, Proietti said she wasn’t surprised to receive the letter from Liberty Counsel.

“I told our members this is not the way to approach this,” she said, recalling the July 12 discussion. “If a member brings up religious objection and then we ultimately vote no to approve it for any reason, that religious objection is going to stand out.”

Proietti said the School Committee’s legal counsel has reviewed the letter and offered follow-up information to questions raised by Martini. Generally speaking, however, “standards are very different” between private and public school education.

De Neeve wasn’t surprised, either, to receive the letter. She noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center has described the law firm as a hate group.

“This is what they do all over the country,” she said, explaining that letters like the one sent to the Greenfield School Department use scare tactics that allow them to find loopholes and “gray areas” in the law to advance alt-right conservative ideology. “This is part of a much larger issue.”

De Neeve said she’s issuing a “call to action,” seeking for others to call and email local officials as well as state legislators and education officials.

Proietti said the School Committee is planning to hold a special meeting next week. With pending legal action, she said, the committee will meet in executive session prior to returning to open session for a final vote.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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