Whispering the F word

I guess it's still news to reporters that people go on websites and post comments anonymously. If it's on the Internet, it must be true, right? The xkcd cartoon on the right sums up the reality of the Internet: there's always something to be fixed.

A faithful reader pointed me to this story by the Washington Post's Brigid Schulte about concerns that a playplace owner is pushing religion.

Apparently combox "whispers" warrant a feature story on what, in the end, seems like an unverifiable claim that this "fundamentalist" Christian woman was proselytizing at her private playplace for children.

The trigger for the story appears to be that three Maryland kindergarten classes were supposed to go on a field trip to the Be With Me Playseum. The owner says they canceled because she mentions God on her website.

In anonymous postings on local Web sites, parents accused Seebachan of handing out antiabortion literature at the Playseum, accepting support from right-wing Christian groups and playing Christian rock music at the play space. Most damning, one anonymous poster who said she was Jewish claimed that Seebachan told her that unless she accepted Jesus as her personal savior, the client and her children would go to hell.

If you check the date on that top post, though, it suggests that the client would have gone to the playplace on December 24, which is Christmas Eve. Below on the forum, it suggests that the playplace was closed December 23-26, so how trustworthy are these anonymous postings? The reporter continues to go back and forth between the postings and Seebachan's defense.

Despite Seebachan's denials of evangelical intent, the rumors circulated on the Web. She began to get malicious anonymous phone calls from people slamming her for foisting her faith on others. Visitors demanded to know her staff's religious background. "One is from Peru," Seebachan said she would tell callers. "One is from Sri Lanka. One is vegan. One is kosher Jewish. I have a guy from Trinidad and a gal from Congo. I honestly have no idea what religion they are. "

In this context, I would think the appropriate description would be "evangelistic intent" if Seebachan calls herself an evangelical. One of the comments from the county's acting superintendent is pretty revealing, and I wish he were allowed to elaborate further.

Seebachan said she was told her refusal to edit her Web site meant no Montgomery public school would send children to her facility. Sean Bulson, an acting community superintendent for the county system who was consulted about Westbrook Elementary's cancellation, said he was "not aware" of any countywide decision about the Playseum. He said Seebachan's statement of values concerned some parents, but the decision to cancel had less to do with church-state considerations and more that many parents said they'd be "uncomfortable" with their children going to the facility.

"Based on what I saw on the Web site, if we had to come down on one side or the other of the church-state issue, I have no idea where we would have gone," Bulson says.

So if an organization's website has a mention of God on it and a school sends children to that organization, then they have to side on a church-state issue? Was there more to the story there? Then, the reporter throws in the f-word.

Those who posted online complaints about the Playseum declined to comment or did not respond to calls from a Post reporter. Seebachan's friends and neighbors say she makes no secret that she's a fundamentalist Christian but does not impose her faith on others. Some are concerned that the field trip may have been canceled based on hearsay alone.

You know how we feel about using the word fundamentalist. Yes, let's review the Associated Press stylebook just for old time's sake.

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."

So if we're following AP styles, even if friends and neighbors are calling this woman a fundamentalist, it doesn't count. It seems like the story is less about anonymous postings on the Internet and more about school leaders who cancel field trips because of something on an organization's website.

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