ELKHART — Three families and an atheist group have complained to Baugo Community Schools that the schools, and one Jimtown High School teacher in particular, are failing to properly separate church and state, although others are coming to the teacher’s defense.
The families claim teacher Mike Hosinski has filled his classroom with “religious propaganda” and makes non-Christian students feel uncomfortable.
Some Christian stickers and posters in the classroom include the 10 Commandments, “God Bless America” and “As long as there are tests there will always be prayer in public schools.”
In addition to the religious content are multiple conservative and Republican posts, including some that say “Liberalism is a mental disorder,” “Trump Pence Make America great again” and “I’m a child not a choice.”
A parent of a student in Hosinski’s class said Hosinski made the nonreligious student feel afraid of speaking in the class, through the stickers and some of the things he has said. The parents spoke with The Elkhart Truth on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, but the newspaper knows their identity.
After hearing from the student, the parent went to the school to see the stickers firsthand.
“I wasn’t even able to document all the church and state violations in that classroom. It is just blatantly, blatant Christianity in that classroom and throughout the entire school and school district,” the parent said.
That includes a Nativity scene at the elementary school every Christmas, said the parent, who claimed the child has also been sent home from school with flyers for Vacation Bible School, given to students by teachers.
“It’s important that the separation of church and state be respected, not only for my student in particular but for all of the non-Christian students who are there, who maybe feel afraid to speak up,” the parent said. “Whether atheist or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu, it’s important for all of these students to feel accepted and welcome at their public school.”
The parent said the student is not the only one who feels excluded and that two other families had also contacted Northern Indiana Atheists for help. People supporting Hosinski and the school corporation have been extremely angry, the parent said, and some who have learned the parent’s identity have sent threatening messages.
“I’m afraid for my student’s safety. I’m afraid to send my student to their public school right now,” the parent said.
Northern Indiana Atheists president Troy Moss said the group encouraged students and parents at the beginning of the school year to report violations of the separation of church and state. That has resulted in eight reports in addition to the one against Jimtown High School.
“Public schools are run by the government. They’re bound by the First Amendment. This means while they can teach about the influences of religion in history, literature and philosophy, they can’t promote religious beliefs or practices as part of the curriculum,” Moss said. “If Mike wants to indoctrinate students with his personal beliefs, he should be working at a private religious school.”
The parents and Northern Indiana Atheists have not called for disciplinary action against Hosinski. Instead, they encouraged the school to take down the displays of religious materials and educate the staff on the separation of church and state.
Northern Indiana Atheists’ complaint has been shared more than 300 times on Facebook, but many feel the group is being unfair. Some, including Zoe Devol, are former students of Hosinski.
“He is a Christian conservative, and that’s very obvious, but when he’s teaching he doesn’t let that conflict what he teaches about,” said Devol, who graduated from Jimtown High School in 2018 and now studies criminal justice at IUSB.
She said Hosinski listens to his students, just like they listen to him.
“It was never to the point where it really questioned what religion I wanted to be or what others wanted to be,” Devol said.
When she said in Hosinski’s class that she was an atheist, he encouraged discussion to gain a better understanding of her thoughts, she said. He wasn’t trying to degrade her beliefs.
“He practices what he preached, and he preached about having great morals and having people be good people, and that’s what he wanted to teach,” Devol said.
Despite being done with high school, Devol said she frequently visits to speak with Hosinski, who teaches sociology, which is Devol’s minor in college.
She said the posters and stickers in Hosinski’s classroom were given to him by students and are located in the back of the room. If you walk in and sit down, you might not even see them, according to Devol.
“It was something that students gave him and he thought would be OK to put up,” she said.
Though she didn’t see it as a problem for herself, she understands that others who are not Christian or conservative might feel uncomfortable with speaking their mind in the classrooms. And the sticker saying “Liberalism is a mental disorder” is probably crossing the line, she said, though she hadn’t seen it.
“A lot of students, especially high school students, do have mental illnesses, and I don’t feel as if those kind of play on words are appropriate,” Devol said.
But she thinks the complaints against Hosinski are too harsh.
Northern Indiana Atheists’ complaint originally included screenshots of a social media account that appeared to belong to Hosinski. Among the posts from the account were extreme views, but Moss said the organization took down the screenshots when it learned that the account was faked and did not belong to Hosinski.
“I feel like he was unfairly attacked by something that was blown out of proportion and could easily have been resolved between parents and school instead of taking whatever content to the internet,” said Devol.
She believes that some false claims have come in social media discussions because of the misinformation.
“I feel horrible for Mike Hosinski,” she said. “This man is an amazing person all around.”
Hosinski directed a call for comment to Baugo Community Schools superintendent Byron Sanders, who was the Jimtown High School principal from 2017 to 2019.
Sanders released a statement Monday afternoon, saying the materials in Hosinski’s classroom were contributed by students but could be interpreted as bias. For that reason, any materials that could advance partisan or religious views have been removed.
“Efforts will continue to ensure that teaching techniques in our schools do not violate civil liberties and a clear separation between church and state is honored. Baugo Community Schools recognizes the dignity and rights of all of our students and will exercise great care to afford them their civil rights,” the statement said.
The school corporation did not comment on whether any action was directed toward Hosinski, as the school does not comment on human resource issues.
Baugo Community Schools said it encourages stakeholders to communicate concerns confidentially through firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus