Conflict over religious symbols leads Josephine County to cut funding for OSU Extension Service

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
June 8, 2023 12:04 a.m. Updated: June 9, 2023 7:21 p.m.

County commissioners and community members objected to what they viewed as a ‘woke agenda’ from the century-old program

An ongoing disagreement over religious expression in a government-funded program has led to the apparent termination of a decadeslong partnership between Oregon State University and a rural county in southern Oregon.

Josephine County’s Board of Commissioners voted Wednesday to cut future funding toward Oregon State University’s Extension Service.


That decision comes after some commissioners and community members said at previous meetings the extension service had a “woke” agenda — specifically within the 4-H youth program.

The board cut the tax funding in a 2-1 vote. It also voted 2-1 to terminate a service agreement between the county and OSU for a number of programs. Those decisions halt local tax funding toward 4-H, gardening programs and other services leaving the future for extension service programming in the region unclear.

Josephine County Chair, and former Republican state senator, Herman Baertschiger Jr. said community concerns about the OSU Extension Service have been lingering for some time and haven’t been properly addressed.

“This problem started last fall and you have no reconciliation, and it’s June of this year. That’s a failing administration,” Baertschiger said. “They know they have a problem and they haven’t made any headway solving it, in my opinion.”

Josephine County Commissioner Herman Baertschiger speaking at a wildfire townhall in Grants Pass in 2022.

Josephine County Commissioner Herman Baertschiger speaking at a wildfire townhall in Grants Pass in 2022.

Erik Neumann/JPR

During previous meetings, Josephine County’s Board of Commissioners and local community members shared anecdotes of kids in the local 4-H program wearing shirts with Christian symbols on them being told they had to turn the shirts inside out to conceal the symbols. Community members also said religious-affiliated groups were barred from attending farm animal auctions with 4-H.

Staff with the extension service said those anecdotes don’t tell the whole story.

4-H is the only nationwide youth organization administered through land-grant institutions — in Oregon’s case OSU — according to the university. It began as an agricultural program for youth in rural communities focused on raising and auctioning farm animals, but it has also grown to include community service projects, art, music and science.

“I think the situation that’s been presented to you has been exaggerated,” Kayla Sheets, administrative office manager and local liaison for the OSU Extension Service, said to the Josephine County commissioners at a meeting last week.

According to the Grants Pass Daily Courier, accusations have been floating around the Josephine County community and social media that local 4-H leaders with the OSU Extension Service told a child participating in a livestock show at last August’s county fair to turn their T-shirt, displaying a large cross, inside out. That child was part of a local club called “Faithful Farmers.”

“It just saddens me, you taking God out of 4-H,” Baertschiger said during a meeting last month. “It still says ‘In God, we trust’ on every single dollar bill. We say it in our Pledge of Allegiance. It’s just politics. It’s just flat politics.”

Cathy Haas, OSU’s director for 4-H youth development and program leader, told OPB that to her knowledge no OSU employees asked children to turn their T-shirts inside out. However, Haas said she advised OSU’s 4-H faculty to have conversations about purchasing new T-shirts for the Faithful Farmers club.

The OSU Extension Service has a “religious neutrality policy,” stating that because 4-H is a publicly-funded program, it cannot include any religious activities or specific references to religious beliefs.

“Personal religious expression, including wearing clothing or jewelry with religious symbols, is permitted. However, the Faithful Farmers club t-shirts were club shirts, purchased with 4-H funds,” said Jennifer Alexander, communications director for OSU’s division of extension and engagement.

Alexander said the extension service held a community forum last January to hear and respond to questions from the community and to clarify its policies, including that religious neutrality policy.

Around that same time, Alexander said local community members and stakeholders expressed the desire to allow groups other than 4-H to sell through the youth livestock auction.


According to The Daily Courier, a new group ended up being formed called “Youth and Ag of Josephine County,” which includes members from a local ministry. As of last month, the new group had signed up nearly 300 kids to participate in livestock shows, according to the newspaper.

Alexander with OSU said the number of youth participating in Josephine County’s 4-H did take a hit. At the end of last year, the local 4-H had 277 youth in the program. In January, that number fell to 49. But, she said about 130 youth are participating in the program now.

The decline in participation gave critics on the county commission another reason to eliminate funding.

“When you have all these kids and families leave a program, it’s failing,” Baertschiger said during Wednesday’s meeting. “Why would I want to fund something that’s failing?”

With the Josephine County Board of Commissioners’ decision to cut off funding to the OSU Extension Service, the future is unclear not only for the local 4-H program, but other programs focused on adult gardening, emergency preparedness and community health.

According to the OSU Extension Service, the service district and ongoing tax levy in Josephine County was originally approved by voters in 1996. However, the extension’s history in Josephine County goes back much further — the first OSU extension agricultural agent was hired with county financial support in 1916.

The only other county in the state that does not provide local funding to the OSU Extension Service is Multnomah County, which ended its partnership with the service in 2003, according to the Portland Business Journal, due to a tightening county budget.

Before the commission’s vote Wednesday, the OSU Extension Service was receiving funding from Josephine County through a levy of roughly $0.04 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That would’ve resulted in an estimated $414,000 in tax revenue for the service district for the upcoming fiscal year, according to the OSU Extension Service.

The extension service also received funding through the state and federal government, but only on a matching basis. Without a local county match, OSU cannot provide matching state or federal funds to support any extension or 4-H activities, according to the university.

While $323,000 in Josephine County service district dollars were projected to go toward roughly three full-time positions through the OSU Extension Service this next fiscal year, Oregon State University provides salary and other payroll expenses for an additional 11 faculty and staff members that serve the county, totaling more than $500,000, according to the extension service.

Budget documents from the extension service show that Josephine County tax dollars make up about 14% of the extension’s budget while state and federal funding makes up roughly 36%.

OSU Extension Director Ivory Lyles says the decision by the county commission leaves an uncertain future for extension services to the county.

“The commission’s votes today will require an evaluation of the impact these decisions will have on our delivery of Extension services to Josephine County residents in the coming year,” Lyles said in a statement to OPB. “We will develop a transition plan based on funding projections for the coming year. We will keep Extension participants, stakeholders and Josephine County residents informed as we move forward.”

Josephine County Commissioner Dan DeYoung was the only member of the three-person commission to vote against cutting extension service funding.

He called on his fellow commissioners to “pump the brakes,” work collaboratively with OSU to talk through potential changes to programming, and re-evaluate the tax funding for the extension service next budget cycle.

Ultimately, Baertschiger and board Vice Chair John West did not agree.

“I don’t believe that OSU and those folks are listening, and I don’t believe the answer is to continue to give them the money to continue on with the way that they’re going,” West said.

Leadership at Oregon State University’s main campus in Corvallis also expressed their disappointment in the decision and are hoping to find a way to continue serving Josephine County.

“We hope that in time, discussions between county commissioners, community members, and university and OSU Extension leaders can restore what has been more than two decades of successful relationships and impactful service to local residents,” OSU Vice President of University Marketing and Relations Steve Clark told OPB.

Editor’s note: This story has been amended to include further context provided by the OSU Extension Service after the story initially published, regarding the shirts with religious imagery.


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