Ind. mom challenges school's released-time program

By The Associated Press
11.19.08

HUNTINGTON, Ind. — A parent is suing the Huntington County Community School Corp. in federal court, saying religious classes held on school property violate the establishment clause of the Constitution.

A complaint filed by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union in Indiana on behalf of an unnamed woman and her 8-year-old son asks a federal judge to shut down the program and bar the school district from providing it with utilities or any other support.

The boy, identified only as “J.S.,” attends Horace Mann Elementary School, which offers third- and fourth-grade students a “released-time” program for “By the Book Weekday Religious Instruction” through the Associated Churches of Huntington, the complaint filed Nov. 12 states.

Similar programs at elementary schools have been protected by the 1952 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Zorach v. Clauson, which allowed students to receive religious education during school hours but not on school property.

Huntington’s program is voluntary. Classes meet once a week in mobile trailers near school buildings, and children who don’t participate remain in their classrooms with school staff, according to a brochure for the program filed with the lawsuit.

On Sept. 11, one week before the program began, J.S. was taken from his classroom to one of the temporary classrooms and given a pamphlet regarding parental consent. His mother, identified only as “H.S.,” did not give consent.

The church trailer sits in the school’s parking lot and uses the school’s electricity. The students are escorted to the program by their teachers each week, and those who do not participate receive no school programming during the released time.

The suit alleges the school district violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by allowing religious instruction to occur on school property during instructional time, by allowing the use of school utilities by a religious organization conducting religious instruction, and by supervising and promoting the “By the Book” program.

Superintendent Tracey Shafer said he had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit and declined to comment.