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Group asks NH Fish and Game to stop mixing hunter safety and religion

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 07. 2017 10:26AM
The Heritage Freewill Baptist Church in Laconia, has come under scrutiny after participants in a state-sponsored Hunter Safety Class complained that they received religious flyers and information about services in their course study materials. The course was taught by the church's Pastor Dr. Joel Nason of Meredith, who also serves as chaplain for New Hampshire Fish & Game. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

CONCORD — A foundation that focuses on the separation of church and state is asking the Fish and Game Department to stop sanctioning hunter safety classes at a church in Laconia, where attendees received religious fliers with prayers and information about church services.

In a June 28 letter to Commissioner Glenn Normandeau, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asks the state to “put a halt to the blatant propagation of Christianity during official safety lessons.”

Normandeau is out of the office this week, but a spokesman for the department said the matter is under review.

“We have made no formal response to the letter as yet,” said Nicola Whitley, chief of the Public Affairs Division at Fish and Game. “I can assure you that the Fish and Game Department emphasizes to all instructors the importance of only covering information contained in the hunter education curriculum, which contains no material relative to any religion.”

Fish and Game organizes hunter safety classes throughout the state, mostly at fish and game clubs or community centers.

The course is required of anyone wishing to buy a hunting license in New Hampshire, and is designed to teach hunters proper safety and ethics in the field, according to the Fish and Game website.

Someone who attended a class on April 6 to 8 hosted by the Heritage Free Will Baptist Church in Laconia contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to report that everyone at the class received religious materials enclosed with the official hunter safety documents and study packets.

“These proselytizing handouts are demeaning to non-Christians and nonbelievers,” according to Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “Such a misuse of a state function for sectarian purposes is unconscionable ... Allowing churches to distribute their religious literature through a class co-sponsored by New Hampshire Fish and Game constitutes government endorsement and advancement of religion.”

The letter from Barker and Gaylor urges Fish and Game to investigate and ensure that future classes co-sponsored by the department do not involve the distribution of religious materials. It also asks that the department refrain from conducting any future workshops in churches.

“Churches cannot be permitted to take advantage of a captive audience in this manner,” wrote Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation letter can be viewed below:

Hunter safety class attendees at Heritage Free Will Baptist Church received a flier promoting worship services and Bible study at the church, located on Meredith Center Road, and a handout on the ABCs of becoming “God’s child” — “Admit that you are a sinner, Believe who Jesus is and what Jesus did; Choose to trust in Jesus.”

Pastor Joel Nason is described on the church website as “an avid outdoorsman and chaplain for the state of New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Law Enforcement Division.”

He was unavailable for comment on Thursday.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation bills itself as a national nonprofit with more than 29,000 members, including some in New Hampshire.

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