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Out-of-county crowd gives support to 'Bible trailer' at school board meeting

A room full of interested people listened intently as an attorney for the local school board gave an update on the legal case against a long-established practice of offering religious education to elementary-age students during the school day.

"There's been activity in the court" since the mother of an 8-year-old Horace Mann student filed suit in United States District Court in Fort Wayne on Nov. 12 to stop the practice of offering a religious education program on school grounds, Joe Wiley, legal counsel for the Huntington County Community School Corporation, explained during Monday night's School Board meeting. The child's mother is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Linda Polley ably presented our case to Magistrate Cosby" during a hearing last Wednesday, Wiley said of a Fort Wayne attorney hired to represent the school corporation in the case. "Both sides filed briefs."

Cosby set a June 1 deadline for discovery, so a hearing on the case wouldn't be set until after that date, Wiley noted.

"The judge took the decision under advisement, he could make that any time," Wiley said. "We think it will be fairly soon."

That decision will determine the direction of the "By the Book" religious education program, which is operated by the Associated Churches of Huntington County. In its current form the church group transports a trailer to the county's eight elementary schools and students, whose parents have signed release forms, receive religious education. State law allows such release time for religious education with parents' consent. The program has been in place in Huntington County for more than 50 years.

Based on the merits of the case, the judge will decide "whether or not the program can continue or whether changes need to be made," Wiley said. "If the injunction is granted, the judge will give us some things we would need to do" in order to continue.

The audience at last night's meeting included a large contingency from nearby Wabash County.

"We came to tell you how proud we are of you for letting your students study history in its highest regard," said Lois James, a visitor from North Manchester. "Half of your audience is from Wabash County. We came to tell you we want to back you."

"This greatly concerns me," added Mary Ringle. "If this happens here, it could happen in Wabash County. I want to see the churches be able to offer this to our children - it gives them a moral base. I hope things are resolved in favor of the program."

Pastor Randall Webb, also from Wabash County, agreed.

"Students need a strong, firm education," he said. "They also need to have a moral teaching as well."

Admittedly, the woman who filed the case and her child do have rights, but so do other people, Webb stated.

"We as Christians have rights," he said. "Their (Christians) taxes also pay for schools. They (the children) are not forced to take part" in the religious education program. "The children have the right to decide to take the moral teaching. To deny one person's freedom for the rights of another is wrong."