'Bible trailer' education could return in different form

Students in the Huntington County Community Schools could be back in the "Bible trailer" before the end of the year.

The return of the voluntary religious education classes depends on two things.

First, a federal judge must approve an agreement reached by parties in the federal lawsuit that halted the program last spring.

Then, the program's sponsor must find sites near, but not on, school property where the classroom trailer can be parked.

"I'd like to have that done before the first of the year," says Jim Guhl, president of the Associated Churches of Huntington County, which coordinates the religious education program.

The program, which had its start in 1945, was the target of a lawsuit filed in November 2008 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of an unidentified parent whose child attended Horace Mann Elementary School. The ACLU alleged that the mobile classroom operated by the Associated Churches did not belong on school property.

Last March, U.S. District Court Senior Judge James T. Moody issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the Associated Churches from parking the mobile classroom on school property.

The lawsuit, however, continued. The consent decree, which if approved will end the lawsuit, was filed with the federal court in Fort Wayne during the first week of September, Huntington County Community Schools Superintendent Tracey Shafer says.

"If the Huntington County Community Schools continue to engage in legal proceedings, that inherently prevents the Associated Churches from running their program," Shafer says in explaining why the school corporation decided to work toward a settlement.

The settlement would permanently remove the Associated Churches' trailer from school grounds.

"We will not allow religious instruction to take place on school grounds during instructional time," Shafer says.

State law allows students to be released from school for up to 120 minutes a week for religious instruction, he notes, so students can be released from school to attend the classes in another location.

Students must turn in signed permission slips in order to attend those classes, he says, and the Associated Churches will not be allowed to distribute those forms to students during school time. They can, however, give the forms to students before or after school, Shafer says.

The school corporation will pay $31,423, but that money will not go to the parent who filed the lawsuit, Shafer says.

"HCCSC is not writing a check to the plaintiff. There are no damages being paid," Shafer says. "We do not admit to fault or wrongdoing on the part of the school corporation. There is compensation, but it is not direct to the plaintiff. It's tied to ACLU costs and their fees."

The money will be paid by the school corporation's insurance company, Shafer notes.

"We cannot directly support the Associated Churches program, but at the same time we don't want to inhibit the program," Shafer says. "The Associated Churches programming, once it's fully operational, will be just as visible and viable as it was before."

In the past, Shafer says, about 97 percent of the school corporation's third and fourth grade students were given permission by their parents to attend the religious education program. Students left their classes once a week and spent about 30 minutes in the Associated Churches' mobile classroom, learning about the Christian religion.

Guhl says the Associated Churches has secured locations close to more than half of the county's elementary schools where the mobile classroom can be parked. The organization plans to secure 50-year leases with the property owners, he says, and volunteers from area churches will install driveways and pads for the trailer.
At one school, Guhl says, students may be transported by the Associated Churches to a nearby church for the classes.

The staff is in place to resume the program, he says, and a new coordinator, Teri Shiflett, has been hired.
Shafer says the response from the community after the lawsuit was filed indicated that most residents favored allowing the religious education program to continue.

"The overwhelming response is that the community patrons think it's a good idea," he says. "The general values of the community reflect wanting the program to continue. They only way we can allow that to happen is to enter into an agreement.

"I appreciate the support of the community through this process."