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ACLU to churches: Not on school grounds, you don't

From the Huntington County, Ind., Community School website

The American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of an offended parent, is suing an elementary school district for allowing its students to attend a non-taxpayer-funded religious education program that meets on campus.

For the past 55 years, the Huntington County Community School Corporation of rural Indiana has permitted students in its eight elementary schools to attend religious study groups through a “released time” program.

The program, coordinated by an area church association, enables students with parental permission to be released from classes one hour during the school day to receive religious instruction that cannot be otherwise offered by the public school.

And while a 1952 U.S. Supreme Court ruling permits “released time” religious instruction, the ACLU is alleging that since Huntington County’s programs are housed in trailers on school property, they violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

In championing the First Amendment – which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” – the ACLU frequently cites the “wall of separation between church and state,” a phrase first coined by Thomas Jefferson to protect churches, but now often interpreted to encompass any interaction between faith and public schools.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a legal organization defending religious liberty, however, disagrees with the ACLU and its interpretation of Jefferson’s famous phrase.

“The only wall that separates religious groups from conducting programs on public school campuses is the ACLU’s wall, not Thomas Jefferson’s,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel David Cortman in a statement announcing a friend-of-the-court brief filed by his organization. “The program is perfectly constitutional.”

Huntington County’s school district agrees with Cortman.

“The primary effect of the defendant’s release time program neither advances nor inhibits religion,” reads a school district response to the ACLU lawsuit. “The defendant’s release time program does not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.”

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of a mother of an 8-year-old student enrolled at Horace Mann Elementary School, where the Associated Churches of Huntington County offer “By the Book Weekday Religious Instruction” classes for third- and fourth-graders.

Of the district’s 950 eligible children, the ADF reports, nearly 97 percent of the students attend the Associated Churches’ voluntary classes. At Horace Mann Elementary, all 61 fourth-graders and 51 of the 54 third-graders receive the instruction.

According to a brochure filed with the lawsuit, the classes meet once weekly in trailers separate from the school building but on campus, while children who don’t participate remain in their classrooms with school staff.

The lawsuit alleges that the trailers use school electricity, and thus school money, but the ADF brief claims this is mistaken and the program is completely free of taxpayer funding.

The suit also alleges that students who do not participate receive no school programming during the release time, but the school district denies the charge as also incorrect.

The ADF brief claims the physical geography of the Horace Mann school – bounded by a river on one side and highways on the others – prevents the children from being able to safely leave school grounds. Forcing the “By the Book” classes off-campus, the brief argues, would effectively “bring the Association’s program at Horace Mann to a screeching, and permanent, halt.”

ADF Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco sees no reason why the trailers should need to be moved from school grounds.

“Religious studies groups that use no taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be thrown off campus simply because of their beliefs,” said Tedesco in a statement. “This strictly voluntary 55-year-old program doesn’t become unconstitutional simply because one parent objects to its teachings.”