AZ school board candidates answer: “What role should religion play in schools?”

This election cycle, we’ve been hosting forums with candidates for various school boards in Arizona (all available on our Youtube channel). We wanted to see whether candidates were willing to stand up for separation of church and state on the school board level, so we asked:  “What role (if any) should religion play in our public schools?”

Below, we’ve compiled the full responses answers from everyone who attended. (Though note not every candidate accepted our invitation.)

Peoria Unified School District

Melissa Ewing

“First, I think that if we have good relationships, like teachers in schools—if they have good relationships with families and understand the diverse backgrounds that they come from, the culture, and even the different religious affiliations or spiritual affiliations, there’s an opportunity to celebrate those differences. And I think it’s also good to understand reaching out and fostering those relationships is helpful in terms of if there’s any sort of beliefs that families might not want to be discussed or that they would want to opt out of. So I think that understanding somebody’s religion and cultural background helps to foster a better relationship.

But in terms of should religion be a part of the curriculum? I don’t think… I don’t believe that. [What] should be a part of the curriculum—it’s  not in there for the state standards—but it is important to recognize that we all have different religious backgrounds and different spiritual backgrounds because that makes up who we are and we need to have acceptance. Like if there was a teacher who was of a different religious background than maybe myself, I would want my child to know a little bit of information about them, just to be able to celebrate who they are and what great things they bring as a teacher. And so I think there’s ways that we can celebrate that, the differences, but I don’t believe in the actual curriculum that there should be… and the laws state that that we shouldn’t be forcing or coercing our religious beliefs on students.

But we can certainly recognize and appreciate and have an awareness of their religious beliefs.


Scottsdale Unified School District

Andrea Keck

“Well, the state has put forth a number of statutes that that speak to those issues. There are a few exceptions, for example being able to say the Pledge of Allegiance which does include the words ‘under God,’ the ability to talk about religion. But it’s very specific if you talk about religion it has to be in the context of a curriculum and teaching […] about that. But for the most part I do not believe that public schools should should teach religion or be involved in religion. When those subjects come up I think the proper answer from a teacher is “that’s a personal issue and you need to talk to your parents about it,” but public school is not the place for religion. There are—if that’s a strong value for you as a family—there are options, you know, which are which are religious schools. So I guess my my short answer is I’m obviously obligated to follow the laws that are set forth in Arizona. About some of those exceptions, they are very few and far between but for the most part the answer is no.”


Sara Solem

“[…]I think that it’s wonderful that within our public schools we can have students and staff with a variety of religions and religious beliefs because there isn’t one religion that’s focused within our schools. So keeping that separated, I think, allows the diversity of, you know, the community to really all come together within the public schools. And if a family or student is seeking out, you know, specific religious experiences or education there are many opportunities outside of the public school system that can be sought out to embrace those opportunities, and public schools can keep the focus on universal values that transcend religion like integrity and hard work and kindness.”


Robb Vaules

“None. The public school system needs to provide a quality education to all students free or free of religious influences. If parents are looking for religious education for their children, they should look to private religious schools or religion classes after school. That said, it is the responsibility of our schools to protect the freedoms of students, to express the religion within the educational environment as long as it does not infringe on the right of others. If someone wants to wear a religious garment, that should be supported by the district at all levels. It is not the purpose of public education to represent a particular belief, but it should defend the beliefs of all students.


Mary Gaudio

“I think we are all in agreement that, you know, there is separation of church and state, that each child can […] in their own home practice those beliefs. And every child should be respected and every teacher as well. There should be no proselytizing at the head of a classroom. And I have a unique experience having my kids raised in Texas where we were very much in the Bible Belt, and there were instances of, you know—Alex is [my] only child, his friends said at the lunch table “Alex is the only kid that doesn’t go to church and I’ve always shared with my children that, you know, at any time we would go to any church, and I just didn’t want to force religion on my child, but they were always welcome to go to other churches with their friends and I welcome that. But in the classroom, that is different, that is not the place for […] religious beliefs in education because we are all diverse, we all practice very different faiths, and maybe [there are] those that don’t practice belief systems. So yes, there is definitely a separation of church and state for that very reason, and that’s to, you know, not get muddy in the water and respect everyone’s different beliefs.


Catalina Foothills School District

Amy Krauss

“So the role of religion in school should be very limited, and it should be very specific. In my work, like [Secular AZ’s] work, I’m very familiar with the Constitution, although the First Amendment isn’t really my bailiwick. I’m more in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh. I’m a little up there. But the First Amendment. You know, there is an Establishment Clause and an Endorsement Clause. I think they relate. We have to allow students and staff to embrace and reflect as they wish to any religion that they want to. I would never want to impede anybody’s own expression of their religion.

“So, for instance, in schools if a student is wearing a hijab or any, you know, kind of religious jewelry or a t-shirt, that has to be tolerated. But lessons in religion are going to be part of everything that we teach. It’s a fact of our history our economy, any, you know, arts education. But what we can’t do is endorse a particular religion which we have to preach. We have to teach not preach, so that’s the dividing line for me.

I have no problem with free expression, allowing expression of religion, teaching about religion and its role in other aspects of our curriculum. But there should be no proselytizing or endorsement as any one religion better than any other, as more important than any other, or no religion at all for that matter.


Gina Mehmert

“I myself was educated in a private Catholic school for 12 years, so I have strong personal opinions on the separation of church and state. It’s one of the reasons why I’m such an advocate for public education, and it’s why our own children go to public schools. I’ve also spent much of my early adulthood working in living in Canada, struggling with the fallout of the intersection between church and state. I covered the first Cold War as a rookie newspaper reporter. I lived in Prague for 2 years, just after the Velvet Revolution. I lived in Belfast during the troubles and the Easter Ceasefire. What this life experience has taught me is that church and state cannot be separated, meaning that religion and politics are inextricably linked. Religion has been a very, very powerful force throughout the course of history. So with that experience I do support including religion in the context of teaching the curriculum. If students don’t know about religion, they won’t be able to understand culture or history. By understanding where people are coming from, students will be able to better understand their fellow human beings and hopefully lead to more respect and more understanding. But to be crystal clear, I support the study of religion as a component of historical, political, and cultural learning. I do not support promoting or endorsing. This does not have a place in public school.


Amy Bhola

“So I think Amy and Gina both covered this pretty well, but I’ll just expound a little. I think it’s impossible to have a really robust curriculum without teaching about religion and its intersection with historical events. I know both of them said this, but whether it’s the founding of our nation, or anything at all they do with Western civilization—I remember when you know my kids were young, I took them to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, a favorite place of mine. But what you quickly learn when you go through that incredibly immersive experience is the very role of music, and musical instruments, in fact, often come from religion.

“And so, you know, a good example: this is in CFSD, we have an award winning K-12 arts curriculum. We have choir strings, jazz, steel, drum, and fine arts, music, education, and nationally recognized marching band. And all of this is—it’s really important to our district,and we pride ourselves on it. But because of the intersection with music and religion, I know that individual pieces and movements may be religious in nature. And I think I think that’s okay, but I think the line has to be drawn and maintained that teaching about religion rather than promoting any particular religion is a line which can’t be crossed.


Mesa Public Schools

Marcie Hutchinson

“The proselytizing of religion should not have a role, but the teaching of religion should because historically, religion has been a motivator, it’s been a method of causation for many events that have happened in our human experience. If students don’t know about religion they’re not going to be able to understand and derive the true meaning of culture, whether it be literature, music, art.

“By understanding where people are coming from, students will have a better understanding of their fellow human beings at the very least there will be tolerance. Hopefully there will be respect and understanding. Having taught history, whether it be American history or European history, religion is a very powerful force, and unfortunately a number of my colleagues refrain from teaching religion because they saw it as the third rail.

“How do you teach the Reformation? How do you teach colonization? How do you teach abolitionism? How do you teach the Holocaust? How do you teach the Civil Rights Movement? How do you teach the current situation in Ukraine if you don’t teach about religion? We don’t teach religion to convert, we teach religion to be able to understand the human condition because beliefs and values are so often based in religious thought, so therefore it must be a diversity of religious thought.


Jacob Martinez

“I don’t think it would be at all possible for me to say any better than what Marcy just said, but it’s just that, you know, in no way [should] public schools or any public institution be pushing any sort of religious belief or ideology on students. But to really get an understanding of who we are, where do we come from, and why things are the way they are, we can’t do that without having a comprehensive and reasonable idea of the religions that have shaped those decisions. Some of the largest events and circumstances, situations, systems that happen throughout history and are in place today as a result of religious input or religious beliefs, no matter what it was. Though I mean if it wasn’t for some religious involvement, you know, the United States may not exist, you know, because the whole point was sowing that ideology. And so it obviously… it definitely plays a role in getting us to understand the culture and the reasons that things are the way they are.

“But, you know, in no circumstance should that ever be a force… but rather used as a way of offering students an understanding into a culture or an ideology that they wouldn’t otherwise have, because it’s not in their immediate, you know, echo chamber. And so by putting kids in situations where they have to learn and be diverse, we’re gonna have a more— not just a more informed society and student population, but a more accepting one as well, and that’s super important in making sure, again, that we have positive school environments the kids are excited to come to every day.”


Ray Deer

“I was a middle school teacher in LA. It started at sixth grade. And so for a couple years I was a sixth grade teacher. I taught English, language arts, and world history, and I was— when I started teaching, I kind of looked at my mentor. I remember talking about this, I said ‘we’re basically teaching… uh, we’re religious teachers, because when you go into world history every chapter was about that civilization’s religion.’ And so I exposed our sixth graders in the inner cities of LA to all these different religions who were rich and on their approach to a Creator. And so I know if you were to study my people’s ancestry and their culture here in the Valley […] you would have to by default have to talk about Creator and how we wrapped our whole lives around the Creator. And so in essence you would be teaching that. And so as a sixth grade teacher we taught every world religion. It was teaching their beliefs and their civilization, but inherently you would have to teach their religion and we have tons of activities— writing activities and art activities over the different religions that we had. And I believe my sixth graders came out more informed, better equipped as they go out and they meet someone from a different religion to be able to respect their beliefs, whether they believe in a religion or not.

“And so I believe as a teacher, yes, there’s a fine line of teaching religion as opposed to proselytizing religion. And as a teacher I always kept my politics and my religion out of the classroom to the extent possible of not teaching about it. But no proselytizing, that’s a personal issue and we should leave that to the parents and guardians.


Marana Unified School District

Abbie Hlavacek

I believe in separation of church and state. I do not feel that religion has any place in a public school setting. Like I mentioned, you know, we are a diversified community. We have many students that come from different backgrounds, different faiths, even as a staff as well. As a board member I will remain neutral to that but respect that as well. I think it’s really important the only time that I would think it’s acceptable to bring religion into the school would be teaching it through accurate US history. It is impossible to teach US history without touching on the religious aspects that have contributed to some of our awards and things like that.”


Kathryn Mikronis

I am a fierce believer in the separation of church and state. I am Greek Orthodox. We consider ourselves in the church as the original Christians and I don’t know of any doctrine in our church that says that we need to proselytize and force our religion on anybody. I have notoriously been the person at the elementary school level when my kids were there and we were doing the holiday singing, when it would be brought up to sing a very [non]-secular song like Silent Night I would bring it to everybody’s attention that we had a Hindu student, we had Muslim students, we had Jewish students. Was it really appropriate for us to be singing such a [non]-secular song at a school function? And I found it the answer was always no, we shouldn’t be singing that.

“I believe that children should have the opportunity students and teachers if they want to initiate a prayer on their own, in that that is their right to do so under the Constitution. But they are not to be directed by anybody else to pray. It is not the school’s responsibility to teach that moral vision of what religion is, for that person in school. That’s a family lesson to be learned at home I think it just it’s very hard to teach students that we’re teaching, you facts, and we’re teaching you data and we want you to be critical thinkers, but we’re gonna teach you about just Christianity, and that seems to be the direction that the people that want to bring church back into the schools… it seems to be that they just want to bring back Christianity into the school and it’s a very controversial issue that you don’t want to say, because I come from the Bible Belt, I was born in New Orleans, my family’s from Texas, they all want prayer in school but they understand we can’t have prayer in school because you can’t appreciate and respect everybody’s belief system.”


Paradise Valley

Eric Bistrow

“It’s certainly a complicated area, and I think it’s fairly clear that the state cannot mandate, can’t coerce a religion in its official capacity. It can’t promote religion and it needs to remain neutral with regard to religion. So at the same time, the Establishment Clause, the Constitution, then complex with the Free Exercise clause. So at the same time that the schools should not and cannot promote religion, individuals in their individual capacity have a right to freely exercise their religion.

“So it’s a very, very complicated area. I do believe that schools should have the right to teach about religion. They can certainly, you know… I remember when I was a teenager, you know I had to compare a passage from Ecclesiastes with a passage from—and I can’t remember who the Greek author was—but I had to compare and contrast. That is certainly permissible.

“Certainly some of the most beautiful passages ever written, you know, can be found in the Bible, and as they literary example that can be taught and just in terms of a history. History teachers can teach about the Great Awakening in the 1700’s, when the Great Awakening broke down the standard types of religion that was being practiced at the time. You can teach about how religion has been used as a cudgel in one way or the other.”


Susan Matura

I believe in the separation of church and state, and so I don’t believe that religion belongs in our public school beyond where you might see it in historical accounts, and you’ll see comparative religions and things, like that and in some of our history classes, and that sort of thing. But beyond that I don’t think that religion is itself belongs in our public schools.

We’re a nation and a district of many faiths and the school district should not be in a position to put one religion above another. Public school should be a place for all students, no matter their faith, their beliefs. And that we want to make sure that it remains a welcoming place for all students, no matter but background beliefs, faith where they are within their families, and there they have that time with their families and faith, communities. But school should be a time for school. Each and every student and staff member should feel welcome in our school district and religion shouldn’t be something that kind of divides kids and teachers and staff members in our district.”


Tony Pantera

“Well, I know, [religion] played a big role every day that I taught in the 43 years I taught in in my instruction, because during our moment of silence I pray I prayed for myself that would do a good job with my students and I prayed for my students that they’d be happy and healthy and learn well. But I did that silently. I did that on my own. So personally. Religion was always part of my experience in teaching.

“Having said that, I agree with all the other speakers that there are many faiths in our in our school. If a student comes to me and they have something they want to do that’s faith-based or not, faith-based is their goal […] I’m gonna try and give them the tools I need to follow it the best I can without any discrimination. It should not be part of the curriculum per se, unless it’s like what was mentioned before.

“We do need to keep students from harassing each other about their faiths, you know, putting each other down because you’re a Muslim, or you’re a Buddhist or whatever it might be. We can’t let that happen. And going beyond that, cause one other thing I was gonna say […]: we can’t discriminate. Let them be who they are.

“Okay, they need to bring in their own resources and want to be themselves, and as part of a cultural exchange by getting to know each other, we can learn to tolerate each other at least and get along much better and have more of a safer environment that way. But as far as proselytizing? No. I know teachers shouldn’t be leading prayers. I don’t think it should be done because you’re the leader of the classroom. Kids want to please the teacher, especially elementary level. So if I’m leading a prayer—[that] might be legal in some place to do so—I shouldn’t do it. Because they might just be feel that pressure because they want to please me. And I think that’s wrong.”


Kerry Baker

“So like the other candidates, I am a firm believer of the separation of church and state. It is what our country was founded on. What I hear people talk about prayer and religion in schools, most of the time they’re talking about one religion. They don’t want someone standing up and leading a Muslim prayer. They don’t want you to be celebrating Passover. They don’t want you to be leading something in Hinduism. It’s Christianity, and we have too many students from diverse backgrounds.

We have too many teachers from diverse backgrounds to pick the one religion that some people want in schools. And, like Tony, said, the teacher holds the place of power in the classroom. If you have a teacher leading a Christian prayer in your classroom that is alienating to the other kids who might be from diverse backgrounds, or like, he said, they might then want to please your teacher by also saying a prayer which would go against the religion their parents have brought them up in. So I just feel like it needs to stay out of the classroom. We need to focus on academics, not prayer, not religion.”



Erik Sather

“Yeah, it’s public education, it’s not non-secular education. You know, I believe in the separation of church and state and that religious beliefs should not dictate policy at all at the school board level. That said, I believe that individuals who choose to express their beliefs, that should not be infringed and they should be given, you know, a time and space to do that where applicable.”


Kristine Pavlik

“You know, religion is a part of our society and sometimes that’s really toxic and unfortunate for our world, and sometimes it’s a really positive thing for individuals and families. For a lot of folks, religion really serves as their culture. That’s the tie to their culture. And so I respect and understand that religion is really important to a lot of families. But in order to keep our schools and our learning spaces safe we have to make sure that we are respecting separation between church and state, and that’s to make it safe for everybody.

“I do think that it’s important for students to learn about religions in general but unfortunately there’s such a privilege and a preference in our society for Judeo-Christian religions that it can be really dangerous and it can push upon the freedoms of students that don’t identify with Judeo-Christian religions or don’t identify with any religion at all. And so that has to be done really carefully. But ultimately as far as policy and curriculum development or governing goes, religious values and ideas should play no role whatsoever in those things.”


Washington Unified School District

Tee Lambert

I don’t know that there should be a role as much as an understanding, and if you are going to advise and educate about one single brand of religion, we need to be able to separate that and be able to focus on our kiddos and their families but not get involved into the aspects of religion, because we end up where we are now. We end up with strong religious advocates pushing their paradigm on what is right and what is wrong to a point that Ducey just signed into bill—and I guess it will be 90 days after sine die—a policy on parental rights, and the parental rights is really very rigid in what he has done with it to the fact that we can’t even survey our students without getting parents’ approval to find out what’s going on, what our kids are thinking. And this all stems from one religious segment that is very, very strong and adamant about what can and cannot be done in schools so as far as at the schools. If we’re going to talk about religion then we talk about all and we talk about it being part of our students’ […] background. So you don’t want to dismiss it, but you need to learn to embrace all.”


Tamillia Valenzuela

“I actually agree with Tee. I don’t think it plays a role in on the fact that it should not dictate policy and it should not dictate the environment. But I do think it is important to have an understanding of each other as a community, especially with the fact that Washington is such a diverse community, right? Just driving around, you see different faiths, holy spaces… I don’t know if that’s the right word for it, but you see the spaces that people go to worship and there’s so many different cultural spaces that it is important to understand it. You know, like, our world is not just one specific faith or one specific religion and we do need to have an understanding. We need to have an understanding and hold space for those celebrations for that cultural aspect that comes with being that different faith.

“But as far as dictating policy what should and should not happen within schools, I definitely don’t believe that faith should dictate that. And I don’t think there’s any room um where you can speak about equity and allow that to happen at the same time, there’s just so many aspects, so many different faiths. Like, you just can’t do that. And so in being accepting and [making] a space for all of our all of our community, we need to make sure that there is that separation and that it doesn’t dictate our policy.


Kyle Clayton

I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. That was written into our Constitution and we should uphold that. I think religion is very personal and should be a personal journey that you go on with your family with your loved ones and those you can trust. I do think that religion does hold a cultural aspect so we should hold space and allow for our students of different religions to be able to see their religion in a school calendar or, you know, times off where they’re not missing school or missing critical educational moments because they also want to exercise [their] religion. I have a huge respect for the exercise of religion. I just don’t think that it belongs in public schools.”


Chandler Unified School District

Matt Young

“Yeah, I mean religion is a part of the human experience. I mean it’s as simple as that dates back to, you know, primitive indigenous shamanic times. It is a part of who we are, the challenges that you have over thousands, maybe millions of years probably. Not millions, thousands, tens of thousands. There have been many branches off of that tree, and many different belief systems to interpret this world, and that’s where things get difficult, right? Because this person’s feelings get hurt, because this person over here is saying this and this, you know, it just again becomes this big, like, tornado of people wanting to be represented and wanting to be heard. So it’s definitely a challenging issue. So what’s the role? There’s a role for religious studies in schools.

“I went to a Catholic School, I was raised Jewish, I’m half Navajo, I come from a very diverse ethnic and religious background. And to tell you the truth, learning about those things has enabled me to more easily deal with diversity and different ways of thinking. So I’m not against the idea of talking about religion in schools, but when you start to talk about maybe offering preferential treatment to one type of religion or maybe pushing religious ideals within the school system, I mean it’s pretty clear. I mean, there are laws that are in place to try to protect against that. And I think that in the school board capacity we have to defer to the law. And so I’m open to the discussions. I definitely think that there’s value in talking about everybody’s beliefs. But, you know, from an academic perspective, but again from a decision and governing perspective, I think you have to kind of defer to the law.”


Crystal Markowsky

“Very little. I think that, you know, I just had—because of the law that just passed about the moment of silence—so we got a note from our second grade teacher, you know, saying ‘hey we’re going to be doing this thing,’ and as a teacher I’m not allowed really to even, you know, kind of talk about why we’re doing this. […] But we know through seeing the folks at the legislature who brought this to bear, that it really was looking for time to pray, and I think that if it were time to pray for everybody that might be fine but we don’t do well here with kind of non-Judeo-Christian views. So I will tell you that I am a Christian. The Jesus who I believe in is a brown-skinned middle eastern man who loves everybody, and I think that we have a similarity in a lot of the world religions. And so, you know, that history is important, and I think sharing from a cultural perspective, you know, it’s great that my kids at school, you know, they’re the Jewish parent, the parents of Jewish kids come in, you know, during Hanukkah and say ‘this is what we believe.’ And I’m certainly for, you know, sharing and educating and people becoming aware. But that’s an education. It’s not religious being a part of the schools. People need to do that at their homes and we have plenty of opportunity to do that in our homes and with our humans.”


Patti Serrano

“So it’s definitely a difficult issue, I would say. However, because our public schools do operate under a governmental law, I would have to say that there are decades of case law that address this in order to create what we strive to achieve with free safe spaces and learning environments. I’m of the opinion that we should continue to adopt our constitutional mandate of separation of church and state, and this is coming from someone who does practice her religious faith. But I do know understanding our policies that we have our 1st Amendment rights that fall under political speech, religious freedom. And my understanding is that as long as our act on school campuses of prayer, religious… honoring whatever our religion may be as long as it’s not disruptive to the learning environment—and I want to be clear that by disruptive, that can mean many things. It could actually bring on feelings of discomfort for others, pressure if you’re at a school that is maybe predominantly practiced by one religion. But you’re another—and I feel that our current rule of law allows for us to practice privately as-is in a comfortable way.

“Coincidentally, […] my son literally came home from school yesterday and had this conversation with me not knowing that I was doing this tonight. He’s 13 and has other things going on in life, but he shared that he didn’t realize how special last week was not just for us celebrating Easter, but he heard from two different peers that were celebrating Passover and Ramadan. This happened at school where these peers were able to have that educational exchange with each other.”

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