By Matthew Mittan of The Asheville Tribune
Eleven high-school students, two parent escorts and a teacher were abruptly escorted out of the White House this week after daring to stop during a tour of "the people's house" to pray for its chief resident, President George W. Bush.
When students from Merrimon Christian School in Asheville, N.C., left for the nation's capital Monday, little could they foresee the controversy they would find themselves in. Being booted from the White House and having one of their chaperons "pounded" and yelled at by security agents was the furthest thing from their minds.
Their tour of the White House State Floor, where major political receptions take place, was nearly completed, and they were waiting to go on to the next part before exiting the White House. Ahead of the MCS students was another group. According to Ms. Pat Aldrich, a high school teacher at MCS, the group ahead of them had loitered around for about 10 minutes before moving on with the tour. Once that group left, MCS students decided to join hands in a circle -- off to the side of the big room but not beyond the public area -- and pray. Aldrich told the Asheville Tribune by cell phone yesterday, "We [had] decided we were going to pray for the president [while in the White House]." She also said that they wanted to thank God for giving them safe travel to Washington, D.C.
That's when things took a sudden turn.
"Larry, the group leader, started with his prayer first and each person was going to say a brief prayer," Aldrich, whose prayer was second, continued. "We had been there less than a minute (praying quietly)" when a Secret Service agent came over and, according to the teacher, started physically intervening in the prayer.
"He was pounding on her (Mrs. Renee Gordy, a parent) shoulder while I was praying, yelling 'MA'AM! MA'AM! MA'AM!'" she said. Aldrich completed her brief prayer before the group let go of each others' hands.
Aldrich says that the official then "rudely" began ordering the group to "take it outside" and that they couldn't stay in the room. When it was mentioned that the group before them had lingered in the room a full 10 minutes, the security officer is said to have yelled at the group, saying, "I make the rules here, and you obey them!"
"We feel like we were told to leave because we were praying," Aldrich said. "He was rude beyond all belief."
She said of the students, "The kids were angry that this is supposed to be 'the people's house' and they treated us this way." Aldrich said that the agent was particularly rude toward one female student, Jessica Banks.
Scott Thompson, Headmaster of MCS, was fully supportive of the group's prayer and the response of his students and adult chaperons to the incident.
Asked if Aldrich might face any consequences with the school upon her return, Thompson said, "None whatsoever!" In fact, when Aldrich asked Thompson if she could draft a letter of complaint against the White House, he gave her immediate approval to do so. He also said that if the kids were feeling any anger, fear or curiosities about the confrontation that they should also be encouraged to write to government officials.
Thompson continued, "John Locke wrote about toleration. Toleration is the ability to discuss our differences and tell someone why you believe the way you do. I think we've redefined toleration in America today. Tolerance now means not talking about things you believe in." He believes that is what happened Tuesday at the White House, that there was a lack of tolerance of public prayer.
Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., has his office "aggressively pursuing answers" as to what, exactly, led to this confrontation between White House security and the student group from Asheville.
Michael Briggs, a spokesman from Edwards' Washington, D.C., office told the Tribune that Edwards is co-chair of the Senate Prayer Breakfast and that he very much wants to "find out what happened." Briggs said that their office had contacted the Secret Service and was waiting for a call back from them.
Edwards later called the Tribune to add, "I can't imagine what the objection would be to students praying on government property. I pray regularly on government property. I want to make sure this doesn't happen again."
The office of Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., has told MCS that this is an executive branch issue and they are from the legislative branch. Taylor's Asheville office had little to no comment on the situation and offered no referrals to the Tribune for official comment. Rep. Taylor declined an opportunity to discuss the issue with the Tribune early yesterday morning.
North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican, is also pursuing an explanation from the White House. A spokesman from Helms' Washington office said, "The process is underway; we're looking into it." The official said that the senator "will not drop this until he gets an answer."
The White House Visitor Center referred calls to the White House Press office. Jeanie Mamo of the White House Press Office had "no comment" and referred the Tribune to the Secret Service. Jeff Banocy, White House Watch Commander, had "no comment" and referred this reporter to the Secret Service Press Office.
There, Mark Connolly, spokesman for the Secret Service, told the Tribune, "We're not aware of any specific incident." He continued by saying that it is very routine for Secret Service officers to keep people moving and to keep them out of restricted areas.
In response to the groups' claim that they weren't in a restricted area, Connolly said, "If a group was asked to keep moving, the officer is focusing on keeping the tour moving." In regards to the claim that the group in front of MCS had loitered about for 10 minutes and was never asked to move on, yet they were told to leave in less than a minute, Connolly stated, "I can't comment on any specifics because I can't confirm whether it happened or didn't happen."
Connolly concluded by reiterating that the focus is on keeping the tour line moving: "We get over 1 million visitors annually."
He said they just want to make sure that everyone gets to see the whole tour. He also said that he was not aware of any contact to his office by Helms or Edwards.