The massive, Washington-based American Humanist Association is claiming victory over a handful of middle school students who were meeting before class to study the Bible in Joplin, Missouri.
The activists in the lobby group say they forced the school to cancel the Bible study by characterizing it as a deceptive activity that lured students with doughnuts.
But the school says that’s not exactly what happened.
According to the local Joplin Globe, the Bible study was canceled, for now, because it was out of compliance with school-board policy.
Interim Supt. Norm Ridder said in the newspaper report that a review by the district found the program was a student-initiated activity, as the law requires, and that it complied with other district requirements, such as voluntary participation, not interfering with educational activities, not using public funds and not being promoted by a district employee.
But he said the review found that the district allows student-initiated groups at the secondary level, meaning students grades 9-12.
“Our staff was unaware of the policy update and its implication for this activity. As a result, we have suspended the Bible study as it is currently organized,” he said.
He said that means other Bible studies at other middle schools also are on hold. But he said there is an open door if a community group wants to sponsor such an activity, by paying the basic rental fees set by the district.
“It happens in a few elementaries,” he confirmed. “There’s nothing illegal about that as long as they’re paying the fee.”
The AHA, according to Law Newz, the blog of the chief legal affairs anchor for ABC News, Dan Abrams, said the school was “enticing students to Bible studies with donuts,” a move that the AHA called “deceitful and inappropriate during school hours.”
The report said the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, which often attacks schools for having Bible clubs or studies, said: “Student participation in before- or after-school events, such as ‘see you at the pole,’ is permissible. School officials, acting in an official capacity, may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event.”
The AHA originally said, however, a parent of a North Middle School student in Joplin complained about the program.
The organization accused the school of “conducting” Bible studies, “led by faculty, with assistance from outside clergy … during school hours.”
“Last year, the parent’s daughter asked her if she could have donuts that the school offered for breakfast. The parent told her daughter that she could do so, having no idea that the donuts were part of a Bible study activity led by faculty. The parent later learned that the donuts were a lure to get students to attend the Bible study, which takes place immediately before class in the morning,” the AHA alleged.
The parent was not identified.
The nine-page letter explains the parent found out last year there were Bible studies going on but didn’t express a concern about the free doughnuts until this year when “she learned that these Bible study sessions are not student-led.”
The letter accused both students and adults of praying during the Bible studies.
“The Bible study sessions violated the Establishment Clause under the coercion test,” the AHA wrote.
Ridder told the Globe he hopes parents will bring their concerns to school officials in the future, so they can be addressed.
“I don’t know why the parents didn’t go right to the site, and we could have taken care of it,” he told the newspaper. “I want to encourage community … we will follow policy, and we want to serve the parent and child.”