BALTIMORE, Ohio — At least two schools in an Ohio county have temporarily suspended meetings of student Bible clubs following a complaint from a professing atheist organization.
Earlier this month, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent letters to four school districts in Ohio after an unidentified resident provided a screenshot of a church website that said that area Bible clubs were led by “volunteers or community youth pastors.”
The mention on the Faith Memorial Church website had been removed at the time the letters were sent, and Jonathan Morgan, the pastor of the church, said that the text was taken down because it was inaccurate. Only students had been leading the Bible clubs, but pastors were allowed to visit as per student invitations.
“We are writing to request an investigation into the involvement of outside adults in religious clubs in your district,” the letter from FFRF read. “If FMC representatives have indeed been leading student Bible studies, those clubs are not bona fide student-initiated clubs and should be dissolved.”
It asserted that not only would it be unlawful for the lunch-time clubs to be led by anyone other than students, but that church leaders could not participate in the Bible clubs either.
“It is illegal for public schools to allow adults to lead religious instruction on school property during the school day,” FFRF wrote. “Even though the Equal Access Act (EAA) dictates that public secondary schools may not discriminate against student organizations based on their religious, political, philosophical or other beliefs … it is illegal for outside adults to regularly participate in, organize or lead student religious organizations.”
Following receipt of the letter, officials with the Liberty Union-Thurston school district in Fairfield County temporarily placed the clubs on hold while the matter is being investigated. Superintendent Todd Osborn said that his review shows that the groups are being led by students, but students sometimes invite pastors to visit.
Aaron Green, youth pastor at Faith Memorial Church, told the Christian Post that “most school districts have asked that youth leaders and volunteers to attend less often and only speak at the specific request of the students.”
“Both youth leaders and schools are aware of the sensitive nature under which these things operate and need to be extra vigilant about rules governing separation of church and state,” he said.
“As a pastor, when we are doing our best at the request of others to be of assistance in the lives of others, it’s frankly repulsive where we are today—that an individual can bring such undue and unfounded criticism,” Morgan also told reporters.
At least one attorney has responded to FFRF’s correspondence.
“The districts are meeting with building principals and reviewing the parameters of the federal Equal Access Act,” wrote Sue Yount of Bricker and Eckler in Columbus, according to the Columbus Dispatch. “This Act provides for the right of students to hold religious activities on school grounds during non-instructional time, so long as the activities are student-initiated and student-led, with non-school persons not directing, controlling, or regularly attending.”