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Jury sides with Ill. district in dispute over evangelist at school

By The Associated Press
08.23.07

An Illinois man lost a federal lawsuit that accused his daughter's school district of unconstitutionally endorsing religion when it allowed a Texas-based evangelist to lead anti-drug assemblies.

Robert Marsh was ordered to pay the Marion, Ill., school district's court costs after a federal jury in Benton last week found in favor of the district. Marsh filed the lawsuit on his daughter's behalf in 2003, seeking damages from the district.

He was upset that evangelist Ronnie Hill of Fort Worth, Texas, was permitted to speak in district schools in November 2003 and that tickets to private events featuring Hill at a Marion church were distributed on school grounds.

But after the four-day trial, jurors found the district did not endorse religion or "foster excessive governmental entanglement with religion."

Richard Whitney, an attorney for Marsh, declined to discuss the case on Aug. 21, saying "we have an agreement of the parties that we're done trying this in the press."

"We're evaluating options as to where to go from here," Whitney said.

Messages left by the Associated Press for Wade Hudgens, the superintendent of Marion schools, were not returned in time for this story. Merry Rhoades, an attorney for the district, said only that "the case is over, and we don't want to belabor it."

In his lawsuit, Marsh alleged on behalf of his daughter, Amanda — then a fourth-grader — that the school district arranged for Hill to provide secular anti-drug assemblies in the district's schools. While in town, Hill also was to lead an evangelical crusade at Marion's Cornerstone Community Church, which offered to give free pizza to children and teenagers who came for Hill's sermon.

After Marsh sought an injunction to block Hill's appearances in the schools, a federal judge allowed the assemblies to proceed but ordered Hill not to use the events to promote his appearances at the church.

Hill's followers also were barred from handing out invitations at the schools to the Hill-led church revival that included free pizza parties. But on the day Hill was to speak at Amanda Marsh's school, parents and community members there distributed tickets to the pizza party.

Witnesses later testified that a cafeteria worker had tickets, and students were openly doling them out, some with tickets pinned to their clothing.

According to the lawsuit, Marsh "strongly objects, as a taxpayer, to the expenditure of any tax monies for school-sponsored establishments of religion," as well as to school-endorsed "events that aim to indoctrinate children with religious messages."

In August 2006, U.S. District Judge James Foreman threw out the case at the school district's behest, ruling the lawsuit was moot because the assemblies already had taken place and were unlikely to recur. He also found that the assemblies and ticket giveaways were constitutional.

U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy reinstated the lawsuit at Marsh's request in April 2007, ruling that the issue of damages remained unresolved and that evidence showed that Marsh's daughter "was brought into 'direct and unwelcome contact' with the events prompted by the district's invitation of Dr. Hill to speak."


Related

St. Paul, Minn., schools sued over religious-flier ban

School district attorney says non-religious groups are allowed to advertise on school grounds because their programs aren't held during school hours. 04.14.07

Distributing religious literature

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