Hate, Fear, and Religion at the May 3 School Board Meeting

hate fear religion Collier County School Board meeting

Today’s post is not what I usually write.

Usually, when it’s not election season, I write about what our elected officials have been doing, to help myself and my readers be more informed voters when the time comes.

But last Saturday, a friend asked if I’d heard what had happened to Rabbi Adam Miller, the senior rabbi of Temple Shalom of Naples, as he was leaving the May 3 school board meeting at which the new superintendent was chosen.

I thought I was done with that board meeting. After all, the vote was taken, Dr. Leslie Ricciardelli was selected to be the next superintendent, and I’d written a pretty lengthy post about it. All that remained to be done was the contract negotiation, which I planned to write about when it happened.

But after learning what my friend was referring to, I knew there was one more post to write about that school board meeting. It’s about some of what was said in the four hours of public comments at the meeting.

The majority of the speakers were supporting Dr. Ricciardelli. They were impressed by her educational credentials and career, her attention to data, her commitment to CCPS, and how well she connected with individual students. They said that in her brief time as interim superintendent, she had already made changes that positively affected district morale.

But far too many supporters of Mr. Van Zant spoke in the context of their own and/or Van Zant’s political, cultural, or religious values. I’ve included excerpts of them, below. Some readers will be, as I was, surprised and dismayed by them.

Then I will share what happened to Rabbi Miller as he was leaving the board meeting and a quote that experience brought to mind that, unfortunately, is particularly relevant today. And I will close with a personal observation.

What Some Van Zant Supporters Said

Anthony Thomas (watch at 1:29)

Perhaps one of the most dramatic speakers at the meeting was Anthony Thomas, a self-described pastor, Marine Corps veteran, and patriot.

“We have seen many educators and board members and teachers come in, and I believe many of them were planted by Satan himself,” he said.

He said those educators had taught young people “to hate this country, to hate God, to think they are God-like and can decide their own gender.”

“We have seen young people who’ve been systematically indoctrinated to hate their own gender and be caused to mutilate their own bodies,” he continued. “We have watched men come [here] in gender confusion, to bow their knee because they are the epitome of toxic masculinity. Men that would not stand up as your children are being indoctrinated, men that would not stand up as children are being taught to castrate themselves, and men that would not stand up as children are being lied to.”

“We have seen the harvest of evil upon our children, and it is time for change,” he concluded. “Vote for Charlie Van Zant.”

A female speaker who said she was involved in conservative politics in Collier County for more than a decade told the board that, “The winner of tonight’s vote will be tasked with implementing [your] … vision where wokeness, far-left ideology, and progressive policy are a distinct memory of a past administration.” “May God’s will be done and may the voice of we the people be heard,” she concluded.

“This is … about traditional values and keeping the woke indoctrination out of the schools,” another speaker said. “If you hire an insider, our kids will be subjected to the woke practices that we see all over the country.”

“The [school] system has not produced the kids that we want to see come to our culture,” said a male speaker. Turning the culture around “won’t happen by having a superintendent who is supported by the Democratic Party, it won’t by having a superintendent that is supported by GLESN, it won’t by having a superintendent that is supported by the NAACP, it won’t by having a superintendent that is supported by the Teachers’ Union.

“It will happen when we have a superintendent that takes us back to the traditional values of our culture [which] include what I’ve seen in Charlie Van Zant.” He said he saw Van Zant bring into a meeting his Bible, that “is worn out, it’s marked up, it’s used. He uses it all the time because that is his culture. That is his life. And that is the change that he will bring to the Collier County school system, one of returning us to our roots, our moral values and the outcome that we need for the children of Collier County.”

Another female speaker said, “Mrs. Ricciardelli was part of the old regime and supported the leftist agenda of Kamela Patton. She did nothing to protect our kids and allowed the LGBTQ groups like GLESN to brainwash our kids with gender ideology.” “In addition,” she said, “she allowed pornographic books and CRT in the classroom.”

“This is a war against our Judeo-Christian values, against God, against the family,” she said. “The cultural war is trying to control the family, art, education, law, and politics in America. Wake up, Americans. We will lose the country forever. Again, we have to fight against the government agenda.”

What the Rabbi Said

Rabbi Adam Miller (watch at 2:54)

According to the video recording of the May 3 meeting, Rabbi Miller told the board that “at a time when we are seeing rising intolerance and acts of hate, the members in my congregation and across the Jewish community are extremely concerned by the language that they have heard during the search process, particularly from Mr. Van Zant, referring to the unchurched and a decrease in morality as problems in our schools, as well as the Christian language we’ve heard bringing in Christian values from many of the speakers who have spoken tonight.

“That language,” Rabbi Miller said, “implies the desire to impose religious and moral values upon our students. Actions that would cause Jewish and other minority students, staff and families to feel isolated and unwelcome.”

He had heard “unanimously from parents, my congregation, and from many others in the community” that they want Dr. Ricciardelli as our next superintendent. They want a superintendent with “a stellar professional record as well as experience in classrooms, curriculum, and school administration … who will listen to and respect all students and families, those with different ethnic, cultural or religious backgrounds included.”

“Listen to these parents who are speaking loudly, and choose Dr. Ricciardelli,” he concluded, “who will protect the jewels of our community.”

A Commentary

hate fear religion Collier school board meeting
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A commentary by Rev. Dr. Sharon Harris-Ewing of Naples, on behalf of the Interfaith Alliance of Southwest Florida, said of the public comments that “Far too many reflected the desire to infuse Christian faith and principles into the public education system.”

“Advocates for the candidate who was not selected frequently expressed the view that what is wrong with the world is a lack of ‘traditional values,’ a euphemism for Christian values often used by people who recognize that saying ‘Christian’ might sound too narrow or specific — even when that is what they mean,” Harris-Ewing said.

“When school leaders create an environment that explicitly proclaims Christian values, assumes Christian practices, such as praying in the name of Jesus, or blatantly lifts up Christianity as the foundation of our nation, students and staff of other faiths are seen and treated as “less than” their peers. They may be subjected to bullying or simply excluded. This is not only immoral; it is also unAmerican.”

What Happened to the Rabbi

Rabbi Miller described his experience at the school board meeting to the Temple Shalom congregation two nights later.

“It was not easy to be there,” he said. “To hear dozens of people speaking with hate and vitriol about anyone that was different than them. They attacked those who are different in religion, sexual orientation or gender identification. It was disconcerting and alarming to hear those who were talking of instilling Christian values in our schools and describing everyone else as evil.

Then he described what happened after he left the building where the meeting was being held:

“When I went out to the parking lot, I was verbally accosted by two men with anti-semitic remarks.… I took the more prudent path of simply walking away from them even as they followed me, shouting angrily things that were insulting, raving about Judaism being wrong, that we haven’t had a prophet in 2000 years, saying that I was a fake rabbi and on my path towards sin.

“That anti semitic encounter, while one moment, reveals that the hate that we’ve heard expressed in our community towards those who identify as LGBTQ, as well as the intolerance that keeps being shown by that same group towards other minorities, is closely linked to anti-semitism,” he said.

“We should not dismiss this. When someone shows you who they are, believe them. And those two who shouted at me were among the groups surrounding [those] who were speaking those words of hate on Wednesday night.”

First They Came …

While today’s radical right-wing movements are motivated by what speakers on May 3 referred to as the “woke” agenda and their seeming fear and hatred of those who are different from themselves, many groups have been targets in the past, and many others might become targets in the future.

Martin Niemöller (Learn more here)

The Interfaith Alliance of Southwest Florida said, “We call upon the School Board to challenge efforts to ‘Christianize’ our public schools. We urge the Board to do everything possible to ensure that students and staff of all faiths and no faith feel equally welcomed, valued, and supported as members of the school district community.”

For more on the Interfaith Alliance of Southwest Florida, contact Rev. Sharon Harris-Ewing at smharrisewing@gmail.com or visit https://interfaithalliance.org/swfl/.


I was very upset by what Rabbi Miller experienced, as I have been upset each time I learned of anti-semitic acts in my community. MY community! The most recent that received media attention was last July, but there have been others that, while not publicly reported, were reported to the Sheriff’s Office, including some in our schools.

Those feelings compelled me to spend a lot of time this past week re-watching, recording, and transcribing the public comments at the May 3 school board meeting. I wanted to capture the speakers’ actual words and share them with you.

As I watched, I found myself as upset by the anti-LGBTQ comments as I was by the anti-semitism.

I find it hard to believe that the majority of people in our community are even aware that there are people among us who feel as some of those speakers do, let alone share their views.

Yet two of the five school board members voted for the superintendent candidate those speakers wanted – the candidate who said that “the major reason for the moral decline in our country and our schools” was “largely unchurched, uncultured Americans.” (4/26/23 final interview transcript, p. 29)

Faith leaders disagree about some matters of gender:

And that’s okay. What’s not okay is expressing one’s views in hateful and hurtful ways.

More of us need to be paying attention to what is happening culturally and politically in our community. More of us need to be aware of bigotry, hate, and insensitivity, and call it out when we see it.

More of us need to be informed voters, and when elections come around, we need to remember what is at stake and vote our values.

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