In another case of “freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion,” a Michigan elementary school was faced with a lawsuit when they offered an optional off-campus Bible class during school hours. An offended parent was outraged and contacted a civil liberties firm. Under the direction of the superintendent, the school disbanded the class until the law could be examined.
Daisy Brook Elementary School in Fremont, Michigan had a unique program. Michigan state law allows public school students to receive up to two hours per week, during school hours, of religious instruction outside of school. At Daisy Brook, the students could sign up for the optional “Bible Release Time.” Parents have to sign a permission slip for their children to attend the once-a-month class.
A school van picks the children up and takes them to nearby Fremont Wesleyan Church, where they attend a 45 minutes class led by pastor John Perkins. 100 of the 400 students signed up for the course. But it appears it was just one parent who contacted Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists. MACRA released a statement saying that the school shouldn’t endorse the church.
“[It] is clearly designed to promote and support one particular religion, pastor, and church, and is thus an unconstitutional endorsement of religion,” the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists wrote in a Facebook post on May 17. “Such programs are discriminatory and violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
But others, such as parent Britney TarVeer, think that since the class is optional, it’s an open market. “Just because other religions don’t offer this kind of thing at school, it is unfair to take it away from the Christian religion. I brought my kids up in a Christian family my whole life, and I’d like to continue that.”
The superintendent Ken Haggart canceled the program for the rest of the year, stating their legal counsel advised them to “to take time to make sure things are done correctly.”
He sent a letter home Friday telling parents about the cancellation, and, “There is some concern, brought forward by a civil rights group, which by allowing your child to leave the school campus during the school day Daisy Brook Elementary and Fremont Public Schools could be viewed as promoting religion.”
Pastor John Perkins, however, wasn’t happy. He teaches 18 such classes in various counties. He learned of the cancelation in Fremont but when he heard why he contacted his attorney. “He said that by law as long as I have permission slips, as long as the parents sign those permission slips, and I take the kids off campus to a church or wherever that I’m within my legal rights to do that,” Perkins told Fox 17.
He contacted the law firm Rickard, Denny and Garno, who sent a letter to Haggart Friday stating that according to state law “it is mandatory, not optional, to release student for religious instruction,” if the parent has indicated they wish to do so.
They referenced a United States Supreme Court case from 1952. In Zorach v. Clausen the court said, “When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people…”
Britney TarVeer, a parent at the school, said that while she understands the school’s logic, it doesn’t make sense for another parent to be upset by it. “I don’t agree with it because I don’t believe it is a violation of the first amendment. It’s not on school property. Parents have to sign their kids. It’s completely optional. In my opinion, if you’re not physically or emotionally hurt by it, I don’t know why somebody would make such a big fuss.”
But, because it is an endorsement of a particular church, the MACRA finds fault with it. “Without the school’s direct assistance, Pastor Perkins would not have access to recruit students. Handing out Pastor Perkins’ form from the school office is a violation. The school is involved in facilitating the Bible classes by announcing the class and herding the kids to the exits and bus—this is also a violation.”
They also didn’t like that the program is referred to as “our program,” and said, “Superintendent Ken Haggart just doesn’t get it. White Christian privilege is ingrained in his DNA…No public school is allowed to have any program that involves religion. Period,” the statement continued.
But, in a surprising twist, even the ACLU agrees that the students have the right to attend the class.
“Schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who do not attend,” they said in a joint statement with several other secular groups. They stated that the decision to shut down the class violated state and federal laws. “Release for future classes should be reinstated immediately.”
Haggart has said he hopes the program will be able to resume next year. But, the letters from the ACLU and Perkins law firm were only sent Friday, so it is unknown how he plans to respond. But, given it is mid-May and the course only occurred once per month, it is unlikely that any future classes will be held this year.
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