Lodi's First Baptist Church has stopped offering candy to neighboring Millswood Middle School students after learning of parent complaints at the district level, despite the fact that the church was within its legal right to do so.
Outreach Pastor Glen Barnes said that over the past couple of weeks youth pastors gave away cotton candy and popcorn to children as they left the Millswood campus and handed out fliers for after school programs as part of a community outreach effort.
First Baptist Church sits some 20 yards from the newly built middle school, separated by only a bicycle corral and a patch of grass. The two buildings, which share a common parking lot, are not separated by any type of visible boundary and almost appear to be sharing a single lot.
But they are separately owned and at no time during the activities in question, Barnes said, were church officials on school property or acting during school hours.
However, Stephen Perrin, the parent who addressed Lodi Unified School District trustees at their Tuesday meeting, claimed that the church was recruiting a "captive audience."
"Anytime you dangle a carrot in front of a rabbit, it's going to follow," Perrin said about the church's recruiting practices. "Everybody has a right to believe in what they want but at a school site, that's not proper."
Though members of the church said they were not opposed to the term "recruiting," they did not think the soliciting was improper.
"If you define recruiting as inviting people to participate, yeah, we're recruiting," said Pastor Steve Newman. "But it's not like the Hansel and Gretel story, where we're enticing them into the building."
The church has, however, agreed to stop giving away candy after school and is looking for other ways to advertise its after school community programs to students.
LUSD Superintendent Bill Huyett has arranged to meet with Millswood Principal Sheree Flemmer and Newman sometime next week to talk about a peaceful coexistence between church and school. Huyett said Thursday that the district may contact legal counsel to see if the school has any jurisdiction over kids leaving campus.
"We don't have total control over the kids when they're leaving the school grounds, but we will sit down and talk with them about it and go over the reactions we've gotten," Huyett said.
However, according to an attorney for California First Amendment Coalition, that may be the district's only option since church members never trespassed on school property.
Peter Scheer, executive director for the coalition, recommended a "mutual respect approach" when talking with the church about soliciting practices that take place on church grounds.
"If they're staying on their own property, their actions would be protected by the Constitution," Scheer said. "There's nothing, or very little, that the school can do."
District officials said that LUSD and First Baptist Church have been cooperative partners since the district made an agreement in 1999 to give the church a portion of its Millswood property in exchange for what is now Joe Serna, Jr. Charter School. Huyett said he hopes to maintain the relationship.