JCRC advises school after preaching takes over assembly

On the advice of the Jewish Community Relations Council, a San Francisco high school has moved to distance itself from religious sentiments expressed at a summer school assembly organized by a faith healer last week.

The Washington High School program, billed as a motivational assembly encouraging young people to lead a clean life, turned into a preaching session when one of several speakers declared, "I'm here to minister to you!"

Danville preacher and faith healer Mario Murillo sponsored the program. Victory Outreach, a San Francisco Christian group that works with Murillo Ministries, performed a short play promoting God as the antidote to vice.

Wednesday, the day after the assembly, Principal Camille Morishige took quick action, sending a memo to staff and students apologizing to those offended by the material presented the previous day. The JCRC had suggested that tack.

Morishige said she had received several complaints from staff and students about the program's content.

"Had I known that the motivational speakers would include religious elements in spite of what had been written to the contrary, I would not have agreed to pilot the program because such an assembly and material is inappropriate in a public school," the memo read.

Morishige scheduled the program based on correspondence received from the school district and the organizer stating the program was to be a "non-religious motivational assembly." The Washington High program was to be a pilot to test the program's appropriateness for other schools.

Based on last week's program, Morishige will recommend the group not be allowed to make presentations in San Francisco public schools, she said in her memo. She also recommended teachers discuss with their students why such religious material is inappropriate in public schools.

The principal called the JCRC the morning after the program, saying she feared repercussions.

JCRC education specialist Jackie Berman counseled Morishige based on a similar situation that occurred in Santa Rosa several years ago. At an assembly billed as a motivational gathering, students received fliers inviting them to an evangelical meeting the next night.

"Again, the school district was totally taken off guard," said Berman, who suggested the school publicly disassociate itself from the presentation and say the district believes in religious pluralism and public schools should be religiously neutral.

"I call these 'stealth assemblies,'" Berman said. "They represent themselves as one thing, but [become] an opportunity to go in and evangelize. It has no place in the public schools."

At the Washington High School assembly last week, organizers tried to hand out advertisements for similar programs taking place in the evenings this week at another San Francisco school.

Morishige "said she tried to collect all those and see they weren't handed out," Berman said.

The principal drafted a report on the assembly for the San Francisco Unified School District, which has vowed that such an event won't happen again.

"The superintendent instructed staff this group is not to conduct any more assemblies in the school district," said Roger Tom, associate superintendent responsible for school board relations.

The district has sent a letter to Murillo Ministries, informing the organization it will not be allowed in the city's public schools.

The Rev. Louie Duran, an associate pastor with Victory Outreach, said he had heard about the controversy, but felt totally comfortable with the group's role in the public school assembly.

"The proper guidance should start at home," he said, "but when it comes to teaching our children morals and values, the school plays its part."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.