birth control pills (copy)

A pack of birth control pills. File

An online post seeking clergy members for positions on a Charleston County School District health committee has some local parents confused over why religious figures are being recruited.

South Carolina's 1988 Comprehensive Health Education Act mandates that school districts create health advisory committees to review educational materials for lessons on reproductive health, family life education and pregnancy prevention.

It mandates three clergy members serve on the committee.

Kate Quertermous, a mother of two students currently enrolled in Charleston County schools, said the presence of clergy members on the committee is inappropriate and ridiculous.

She became concerned after she saw a post on the district’s Facebook page.

"Initially I was in disbelief," she said. "It just seemed so strange. This is a health advisory committee. There's no gray area here. This is black and white."

All four of Quertermous’ children have attended Charleston County schools. Two have since graduated, one is a rising 11th grader and another is a rising seventh grader.

"I've got a real reason to be upset about this because it will directly affect our family," she said. 

The law requires these committees to have 13 members, including two parents, three clergy members, two health professionals, two teachers, two students and two other persons not employed by the local school district.

Quertermous was not originally aware of the state law that specifies the committee's makeup but said she plans to contact legislators about updating the Comprehensive Health Education Act. 

"It's 2019, this isn't how it works. It's a public school. This whole precedence they've set is completely dangerous," she said, adding that requiring clergy members to serve on the committee violates the separation of church and state. 

Jill Handegan, another concerned Charleston County parent, also said clergy don't belong on the committee. "It's dumb and stupid and archaic and it's ridiculous," she said. 

"I don't know why clergy need to be on there at all," she added. "There's so many different religious thoughts and perspectives and teachings, you're always going to leave someone's teachings out of it."

Colleen Gurney, who has one child in Charleston County School District schools, was not aware of the clergy requirement until she saw the school district's Facebook post. She said she thinks the information should be more publicized.

"I just think a lot of people are not aware of what's going on," Gurney said. 

"It's a health advisory committee," she said. "So I don't understand why clergy have anything to do with it."

Kimberly Butler Willis, a Charleston County parent, serves as the chair of the district’s health advisory committee. She said that during her three year tenure there hasn’t been any stubborn liberal or conservative members on the committee, clergy members or otherwise.

“I think it brings another level of conversation. There isn’t any groupthink,” she said. “Just because a clergy member may be a pastor of a church, it doesn’t dictate that he or she will have strong conservative or strong liberal views.”

Willis said the requirement of an extra clergy member likely reflects South Carolina’s emphasis on abstinence education.

The 13-member committee operates by a majority-vote system. Once the committee has reviewed the materials, they must be approved by the county School Board before they are used in schools.

"Even if our clergymen were three stubborn, conservative, abstinence-only advocates, they still couldn’t win the vote. Unless they had parents or health professionals or students that backed them up," she said.

State Rep. Lin Bennett, R-Charleston, who serves on the House Education and Public Works Committee, said she does not view the presence of clergy members on the committee as an issue.

She said she’s never heard a complaint about it but wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to amending the law and adding a third medical professional “if that makes people feel better.”

Committee members are appointed by the board to serve three-year terms or to fill the remainder of a term if one becomes vacant, according to a spokesperson for Charleston County School District.

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Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.

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