Public school officials in Bullitt County, Ky., have agreed to stop allowing Baptist ministers to visit students during lunchtime after receiving complaints from members of the community.
The practice had been going on for 17 years. Every school day, Baptist ministers from Little Flock Baptist Church in Shepherdsville would go to North Bullitt High School and Hebron Middle School and meet with students during lunchtime. Clergy from other houses of worship were apparently not taking part.
In late January, several staff members at the school expressed concern over the practice. The following month, education officials terminated the visits.
The ministers were not pleased with the new policy. The Rev. Ronald Shaver called the move "anti-Christian discrimination" and insisted that he and his staff hadn't crossed any inappropriate lines.
"We know what we can do and what we can't do," Shaver told the Associated Press. "We hang out, tell the kids, 'We love you, you're important.'"
Church supporters swamped a Feb. 17 school board meeting to criticize the new policy. About 500 people turned out, but the board voted to retain the policy.
During the session, Francis J. Manion, an attorney with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, insisted that the schools could not exclude the ministers. But board members stood by their decision, pointing out that education officials have the right to decide who has access to students.
Shortly before the meeting, attorneys with Americans United weighed in on the matter. AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan pointed out that the Constitution prohibits public schools from allowing outsiders to engage in religious discussions with students or hand out religious materials. She also outlined the legal rules governing access to students by outside adults.
In other news about religion in public schools:
A Texas school district should discontinue its practice of including prayers during orientation sessions for new teachers, according to Americans United. AU received complaints that officials at the McKinney Independent School District opened mandatory teacher training with an invocational prayer in the fall of 2003. In a Feb. 23 letter to the school board, AU urged that the practice be discontinued.
A public school in Carleton, Mich., must not sponsor any more assemblies that feature religious outreach, says Americans United. Concerns were raised after a Roman Catholic speaker distributed religious literature during what was supposed to be a presentation on abstinence. Jason Evert, the guest lecturer, is affiliated with a group called Catholic Answers. Students were required to attend the assembly, unless a parent signed an opt-out form.
Salem, Ind., school officials violated the Constitution by permitting ministers to lead prayers during a school assembly Nov. 10, AU attorneys charge. In a Feb. 3 letter to school officials, AU's Khan noted that the organization received complaints about the Veteran's Day program that included school-sponsored prayer. Khan pointed out that a long line of Supreme Court rulings forbids official prayer at public school events.
School officials in Tamaqua, Pa., have received a letter from Americans United, warning that a recent class assignment ran afoul of church-state separation. Children in several grades at Tamaqua Elementary School were given an assignment to color and cut and paste a Bible story about the birth of Jesus. The assignment was based on two Bible passages from the Books of Matthew and Luke.
"We are writing to inform you that this sort of assignment in a public school is flagrantly unconstitutional and to ask that you take steps to ensure that it does not happen again in the future so as to avoid legal action," wrote Khan.