School board hears update on religious program suit

While its future is still uncertain, the religious education program offered at Horace Mann Elementary School continues to operate as usual.

The Huntington County Community School Corporation Board of Trustees learned Monday, Feb. 23, that both sides involved in a suit filed by the mother of a third grade Horace Mann student to stop the "By The Book" Bible trailer program from being offered on school grounds have filed objections and that information will now be reviewed by the federal judge assigned to the case.

"Mainly tonight is procedural information just to bring you up to date on what has happened in the last week and even some things today," explained Joe Wiley, attorney for the school corporation.

The original suit by the mother was filed in United States District Court in Fort Wayne on Nov. 21, 2008. Magistrate Roger Cosbey heard arguments from both the mother and the school corporation on Jan. 21, 2009, and he issued his recommendation in favor of the mother on Feb. 3. The school corporation had 10 days to file objections, which it did on Feb. 13, and the mother then had 10 days from that date to respond to those objections.

"She did that today (Feb. 23)," Wiley said of the mother. "At around noon today, her responses to the objections were filed with the court."

All the information in the case now goes to United States District Court Judge James Moody for consideration.

"What happens now is the entire package will be sent to Judge Moody in Hammond - he will review the entire case to this point and then he will decide whether to accept, reject or modify the report of Magistrate Cosbey," Wiley said. "He can send it back for further evidence, he can return the case with some instructions to do something different," but Wiley said neither he nor Linda Polley, who represents the school corporation in the case, think the latter is likely.

After Moody has reviewed the case, he will issue an order based on the report and recommendation of Judge Cosbey, Wiley said.

"Until then, we are still not under an order," he noted. "Certainly, obviously, as soon as he issues an order, then we will do what we need to respond and reply to that order."

The procedural part of the Fort Wayne phase of the case appears to be complete, Wiley said, adding he does not know when the corporation will hear back from the judge in Hammond.

"I'm not sure when we can expect a decision from Judge Moody," he said. "I don't know that he has any known timelines or deadlines" as far as making his determination in the case. "Of course the procedures for trial this summer still are on the table," Wiley noted.

Indiana law allows for "release time" for religious education during regular school hours. The "By The Book" program has been offered to elementary students in Huntington County for more than 50 years. The program, which takes place in a trailer moved from school to school, is operated by the Associated Churches of Huntington County. No tax dollars support the program, which is optional for local youth. Parents must sign permis-sion slips in order for their children to participate.

Trustees say they are grateful for the support they have received regarding this issue and continue their work to serve the best interests of local youngsters.

"Again, on behalf of the board, I would just like to express that we appreciate the concerns of the community and we should strive to do what's best for the students of Huntington County," Wiley said.