FFRF protests sermonizing in Indiana public school

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is strongly objecting to an Indiana school district permitting preachers to proselytize at a local public school.

Several concerned school district parents have contacted FFRF to report that two pastors from Heartland Christian Church lead voluntary religious education at Kouts Middle/High School (in Kouts, Ind.) during the lunch period though a program called “Elevate.”

It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders access to students during the school day on school property, FFRF contends.

“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a public school may not advance, prefer or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne writes to East Porter County School Corporation Superintendent Rod Gardin. “It is illegal for public schools to allow adults to lead religious instruction on school property during the school day. Nearly 70 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that a program that permitted religious instruction on school grounds violated the Establishment Clause.” 

This practice demonstrates an unlawful preference not only for religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over all other faiths, FFRF asserts. It alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being disseminated by the school. A school’s assistance of this practice constitutes “a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith,” as the U.S. Supreme Court stated in the McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) case.

FFRF has successfully litigated cases in which a public school district allowed religious groups to teach in the public schools. In Doe v. Porter (2002), FFRF challenged the practice of allowing religious instruction by an outside group in a Tennessee public school. In affirming the unconstitutionality of the practice, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that there was no secular purpose to the program, the program communicated a message of government endorsement of religion, and that it fostered excessive entanglement between the state and religion, thus failing all three prongs of the so-called Lemon test.

Last year, FFRF and its co-plaintiffs similarly halted fundamentalist bible classes in Mercer County, W.Va., schools

It makes no difference that students are not required to attend this religious instruction. Voluntariness does not excuse a constitutional violation. The 1948 McCollum case cited above also involved outside adults leading voluntary religious instruction in a public school during the school day. The school in that case required parental permission slips for the religion classes, but that did not affect the Supreme Court’s analysis.

FFRF requests that the school district immediately discontinue allowing the Elevate program to operate during the school day.

“It’s unfathomable that public school officials are permitting pastors to come in and sermonize, to an essentially captive audience of schoolkids trying to eat lunch,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Surely, they have to know that this is completely inappropriate under the law.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 30,000 members across the country, including more than 400 in Indiana. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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