75 Picket Church Over Its Christian-Teacher Ruling

Times Staff Writer

About 75 people picketed Sunday morning services at the First Presbyterian Church of Sherman Oaks, in protest of the church’s decision to require all of its nursery school teachers to be practicing Christians.

Many of the demonstrators were parents of children who attend the Sherman Oaks Presbyterian Nursery School. The church announced Thursday that it plans to institute formal Christian teaching at the school in September, 1989. Five of the school’s 13 teachers are Jewish, and they would have to profess faith in Jesus Christ or be forced to leave next September, the church announced.

In response, all of the teachers and the school’s director have said they will resign at the end of the school year in mid-June.


“We want to show the congregation how disappointed we are,” said John McCook, the father of two pupils at the nursery school.

McCook and other demonstrators marched along the sidewalk outside the church as co-pastors the Revs. John and Pamela Powell held services inside. Some of the marchers carried signs with slogans such as, “We loved our school.”

Nursery school alumnus Kristopher Wagner-Porter, 10, held a sign that said: “Our teachers were loving, caring, gentle people. Jesus would have loved ‘em.” Wagner-Porter said he often has visited the school in the six years since he left it.

“I would come back and there was all this warmth and everything,” he said. “Now, there isn’t.”

Protesters handed out copies of a letter to congregation members. The letter said the school was a valued community outreach program destroyed by the ultimatum given to the Jewish teachers.

“It has caused a severe breach of faith and trust between your church and the community it claims to be a part of,” the letter said. “We do not believe that true, committed Christians would approve of such an act.”

Protester Joan Connelly, a teacher at the nursery school until last year, said her lessons included trappings of Christianity. Christian teachers often spoke to the pupils of the Jewish teachers on matters such as Christmas, she said. Asked whether Jewish teachers could have been retained while Christians delivered the religious instruction, John Powell said: “The environment is essential. The Session decided that the environment be provided in every class throughout, consistent with the teachers.” The Session is an elected body of elders who govern the church.

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith said last week that the First Amendment has been interpreted to allow religious institutions to hire and fire workers for religious reasons.

The Powells described the reaction of their congregation as “very supportive.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a Christian school wanting its teachers to be Christian as well,” said congregation member Hilary Smith of Granada Hills.

But support among the congregation did not appear to be unanimous. Wearing his red choir robe, Jerry Scoggins stepped from the church and stood among the protesters for a few seconds.

Scoggins said later that he is considering leaving the church after more than 30 years because, “They’re fixing something that ain’t broke.”

But in an interview, John Powell referred to “philosophical and administrative” differences with the school’s director, Wendy Cummings, as reasons for changing the school.

“The Session had to struggle for many months just to have a picture of Jesus in the classrooms,” Powell said. He also criticized Cummings’ resignation, saying he expected her to stay “for the sake of the children.”

Church elder Suzi Miulli, who headed a church task force that re-evaluated the nursery school, blasted the departing teachers as well. She said the school’s summer session probably will be canceled and its fall term will be in jeopardy.

Miulli, who also has a daughter in the nursery school, said the demonstrators were displaying “misdirected anger.”

“The church did not do this to them,” Miulli said. “The teachers did.”

McCook said the protesting parents have asked the teachers to delay their job searches for a month while the parents explore the possibility of forming a nursery school at another location.