Schools head to court Jan. 21 over religious program offered

A battle in the separation of religion and the local school corporation continues as legal proceedings between the schools and the parent of an eight-year-old student move forward.

At issue is a religious education program offered at all eight elementary schools in the Huntington County Community School Corporation. The parent of a third-grader who attends Horace Mann Elementary, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in federal court against the corporation on Nov. 12 to stop the practice of offering the "By the Book" religious education program on school grounds.

Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund filed a friend-of-the-court brief Jan. 5 on behalf of the Associated Churches of Huntington County in defense of the school corporation. The Associated Churches group has organized and administered the program to the district for more than five decades by way of a mobile classroom, and an Indiana Statute authorizes public school students to attend such instruction upon a parent's written request for release time.

While not discussing specific details, school officials were brought up to date on the case during the Jan. 12 meeting of the HCCSC Board of Trustees. A hearing on the case had originally been scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 15, at 10 a.m., but the date for the case was pushed back, explained Joe Wiley, attorney for the school corporation.

"On the judge's own motion, the hearing has been moved to Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009, at 1 p.m.," Wiley read from a prepared statement during Monday night's meeting.

A group of concerned citizens also attended the meeting and had the opportunity to ask questions and express their thoughts on the actions.

"I've had four children go through the Huntington County schools and I just want to say thank you, you're doing a great job," said Jan Dunlap, one of several people who came to the meeting specifically for this issue. "Thank you for sticking with it. This is a community norm - this is a Bible believing community."

Others in the audience echoed that sentiment.

Wiley also took time to answer questions that had been submitted in writing.

"The Jan. 15 (now 21st) hearing is open to the public," he said in response to one question. "However, it's a small courtroom - smaller than either Huntington County courtroom. Federal courthouse rules are also different," he said, noting that security is much stricter, visitors must provide photo IDs and cell phones must be left at the door.
Court records for the case are not sealed as was previously thought, but the identity of both the parent and child are still protected and will not be released, Wiley told the group. He also explained the school corporation's reasons for not discussing the case in public.

"It is our general standard of procedure and conduct that HCCSC and its board of trustees do not offer public comment on pending litigation or court matters," Wiley read from the prepared statement. "In this particular case, our board members and officers and HCCSC administrators and employees have been instructed not to offer any comment to the public."

The school board is "vigorously defending the allegations but believes the program is compliant with all laws," Wiley went on to say. "The board appreciates and values the support and concern of its patrons and will always strive to do what is in the best interest of all HCCSC students and patrons," he said.