Public turns out in support of board as it weighs options on continuing shutdown religious education program

Local residents came out in force Monday night to lend their support to the Huntington County Community School Board as trustees weigh their options regarding the continuation of the "By the Book" religious education program.

The program came to a grinding halt late last week after a federal judge in Hammond issued an order in the case, explained Joe Wiley, a local attorney representing the school corporation in a lawsuit filed by the mother of a Horace Mann Elementary School student. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is backing the mother in the lawsuit.

"The defendant - Huntington County Community Schools - is hereby enjoined from allowing religious instruction to occur on its property during school instructional time," Wiley read from Judge James Moody's order.

"In response to this, last Friday, Superintendent (Tracey) Shafer, on the advice of counsel, notified our building principals that the schools would respectfully observe this order of the court," Wiley said.

School board members planned to meet on Tuesday, March 24, in executive session with Wiley and Linda Polley, a Fort Wayne attorney also representing the school corporation in the case, to further discuss their options. Because the litigation is ongoing, the board has been cautioned about discussing details of the case, Wiley noted.

"The reason that we would discuss legal strategy and options in executive session would be to avoid any premature or unwilling disclosure of our plan and how to respond in this case," he said. "A final trial on the merits, which can occur in this case" would be some time after June 1, 2009, he added.

In the meantime, the attorneys will honor the wishes of the board.

"It's important, until then, for the community to know that the board has instructed counsel - both myself and Mrs. Polley - to vigorously defend the allegations," Wiley said.

The board has tried to keep the community as informed as possible since the suit was filed last November, Board President Kevin Patrick stated.

"One of the greatest concerns that we have as a board as we have tried to deal with this entire process is to be as forthright as possible," he said as he opened the discussion to the public.

Several of the nearly 100 people, who filled the board room and spilled out into the lobby and entryway at the Administrative Services Center, spoke in favor of the program and its positive impact on the community.

"I'm in support of the Bible trailers," Dr. Tom Ringenberg said. "Education is the purpose of our corporation and there are probably many kids who have no idea of the very basis of the founding of this country, no idea that Christianity was a very important part of our "founding fathers."

"And there are kids probably out there, without the Bible trailer, who would have never heard what the Golden Rule is - you know, the most important rule to follow - or even what the Ten Commandments say. This is part of an educational issue. Without the trailers, some kids would never hear these concepts. So I would encourage the board to pursue continuing the Bible trailer program. I think it's a very important part of our community."

Officials with the Associated Churches of Huntington County, which has operated the "By The Book" religious education program for more than 50 years, have said that 97 percent of the third and fourth-graders in Huntington County attend the optional program. Parents are required to sign permission slips before their children can participate.

Ringenberg and several others in the audience said they did not feel that the rights of a few people should override the rights of the majority.

"The rights of 97 percent of the families and children of this county, to me, have been violated by this injunction," Ringenberg went on to say. "So I would encourage the board to pursue it with all your might."

Tom Stahl, a county resident of 40 years whose five children attended Huntington County Schools and the Bible trailer program, agreed.

"What they want to do is ban the parking of the ‘By The Book' Bible trailer on any Huntington school property, specifically at Horace Mann," he said. "They have chosen to ban the education of this whole religious program not only for just one student or one parent who doesn't like it, they're doing it for thousands of people in this county. One person is affecting the majority. And I question ... where's the justice in that?"

Stahl and others also felt it wrong that the identity of the mother who initiated the suit has not been disclosed.

"The American Civil Liberties Union has filed this lawsuit on behalf of a parent and a 10 or 11-year-old child who have no names except the initials H.S. and J.S.," Stahl said. "I didn't think that was legal that you can sue people without having a name."

But that is not the case, Wiley says. In civil rights cases such as this one, those waging the lawsuit do not have to disclose their identities, Wiley noted.

Others who spoke included people directly involved in the program and public school teachers, all of whom spoke highly of ‘By The Book' religious education and its positive effect on children of the county.

"I taught 23 years in the trailer, 13 as director," said Mabel Zurcher, who also mentioned that Patrick and board member Troy Smart were among her students. "I have many good memories, many good students. The teachers work hard to have a good curriculum. They tried to have a curriculum that would compare with your curriculum in the classroom. It wasn't all fun and games, but the kids did seem to enjoy it."

Arlene Farlow, who also taught many years in the Bible trailer, related a story of a young boy named Larry who at first wanted nothing to do with the program. He later came around and found he enjoyed the religious education, she said.

"At the end of the year, Larry came out and said, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Farlow - you've given me some hope,'" she said.

Many young people of the county have also taken a stand regarding the Bible trailer, said Mary Clark, the religious education teacher for the trailer at Roanoke School.

"We're praying for you - hundreds of kids are praying for you," she said. "You're going to have a lot of disappointed kids if this gets dropped."

But Gary Newton, pastor at St. Peter's First Community Church and director of the Huntington Kids Club - a religious-based program - had a different perspective on fighting the suit.

"I am very, very concerned that we do the wise thing now, and I know you're wrestling with what would be wise - whether to go to the Supreme Court or to make arrangements so that we can continue to have and offer classes at these schools," he said. "And my concern would be that we don't waste our money if there's already been a decision made at a government level to basically get rid of religious education at the state level and the local level.

"I think we'd be wiser to do whatever we can to make available space at the schools so that we can have these trailers in the schools as soon as we can, if possible even this year," he went on to say.

Wiley reminded the audience that while they would like to, he and the board are not able to disclose details of their plans regarding the lawsuit.

"Please do not interpret lack of response as lack of support," he said. "It's been difficult for the board, for the administration and for our faculty. We are, I think, of one accord in trying to defend what we've been doing and, if what we have been doing is not deemed to be appropriate, to find a reasonable alternative."