Student boat builders learn a lesson

5:13 PM, May 17, 2013   |    comments
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BATH, Maine (NEWS CENTER) - Students from the small school in the town of South Bristol have found themselves in the middle of a Constitutional controversy.

Its made a lot of local people angry, but the school principal says they've been trying to make it all a "teaching moment" for the students.

For 16 years, the eighth-grade class at the South Bristol Elementary School has built boats as a year-long class project. This year the 5 students in the class are building a pair of wooden skiffs, which will eventually be auctioned off.

The work is done with instructors at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, where they talked with NEWS CENTER on Friday.

The students learn to do all parts of the project, from working with hand tools to drawing the designs and actually building the boats. Each year, they celebrate with a launching ceremony in South Bristol harbor.

That ceremony has included a traditional "blessing of the fleet". But a Washington, DC group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told the school to drop the blessing, saying it violates the Constitutional separation of church and state.

School principal Scott White says they consulted lawyers and reluctantly agreed to end the actual blessing. White says "and there's the word God and "amen" and "his holy name." And that is really what this whole controversy is about is three little tenets there."

White says school officials consulted lawyers after being notified by Americans United, and reluctantly decided that the blessing of the fleet had to go. But he says they've been trying to use the situation as a way to teach students more about the Constitution and the whole issue of church and state and the First Amendment. Students were asked to send letters to Americans United, taking a position for or against the blessing of the fleet and raising arguments to support their position.

The principal says the launching ceremony will go on as scheduled in South Bristol harbor on June 14. He says the boats will be christened and people will cheer the students for their work. He says there will be a speech, but it won't mention those key words and phrases that caused the problem. And even though many people are still angry about the situation, White says he hopes people will leave those issues at home and come to cheer on the students, and the works of maritime art they created.

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