FREMONT, Mich. — A legal group representing a church in Michigan is pushing back after a school district recently decided to no longer allow students to leave school during lunchtime for off-site voluntary religious instruction.
The law office of Rickard, Denney, Garno & Associates, which is allied with the religious liberties organization Alliance Defending Freedom, sent a letter on Friday to the superintendent of Fremont Public Schools in hopes that he will reverse the decision.
“[W]e believe the school’s decision is unlawful and we respectfully request it to be reversed immediately,” the correspondence stated.
According to reports, the Fremont Wesleyan Church has been offering the Bible Release Time program for Daisy Brook Elementary School students, a 45-minute class that is optional and only for those whose parents have signed a written permission form.
The program, led by John Perkins, is held once a month during the lunch period, and the church transports students to and from the study. An estimated 100 children attend.
“Bible Release Time is a program permitted by Michigan law, whereby children are released from school classes during school hours to attend religious instruction at a nearby location,” read a flyer sent home to parents with the permission slip.
However, the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA) recently contacted the district to assert that the school’s role in offering the program to students unlawfully promotes Christianity and thus violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“Without the school’s direct assistance, Pastor Perkins would not have access to recruit students. Handing out Pastor Perkins’ form from the school office is a violation,” the group explained on social media on Thursday. “[T]he school is involved in facilitating the Bible classes by announcing the class and herding the kids to the exits and bus—this is also a violation.”
“Third, the superintendent and principal both refer to the ‘Bible Release Time’ as ‘our program,’ which is another violation. No public school is allowed to have any program that involves religion. Period,” it said.
Last week, parents were sent a letter advising that students would no longer be permitted to attend the lunchtime Bible class. Superintendent Ken Haggart said that the decision was made under the counsel of school district attorneys.
“There is some concern, brought forward by a civil rights group, which by allowing your child to leave the school campus during the school day Daisy Brook Elementary and Fremont Public Schools could be viewed as promoting religion,” the notice read.
Haggart said that the discontinuance is only for 2017 and that he hopes that the program will be restored.
“Superintendent Ken Haggart just doesn’t get it. White Christian privilege is ingrained in his DNA,” MACRA shot back on social media. “The ‘Bible Release’ program is cancelled for now, but in the fall, MACRA will place Daisy Brook on its list of schools for special monitoring to assure continued compliance with the law and Constitution.”
Some parents have now expressed disappointment in the district decision and state that their children don’t understand why they can’t participate anymore.
“I don’t agree with it because I don’t believe it is a violation of the First Amendment. It’s not on school property. Parents have to sign their kids. It’s completely optional,” Britney TarVeer told reporters. “Just because other religions don’t offer this kind of thing at school, it is unfair to take it away from the Christian religion.”
Rickard, Denney, Garno & Associates, which is representing Perkins, outlined pertinent case law in urging Haggart to rethink the matter.
“[O]ver fifty years ago, the United State Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of religious released time classes just like these that Bible Release Time conducts,” attorney Timothy Denney wrote, citing the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clauson, which said that to disallow such arrangements for religious students would wrongfully prefer “those who believe in no religion over those who believe.”
The legal group also noted that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and numerous other secular groups have signed a statement upholding the right of students to attend release time offerings.
“Schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who do not attend,” the joint statement reads.
Haggart is therefore being urged to immediately reinstate the option of attending the lunchtime program.
“Fremont Public School’s decision to shut down the release of students to the Bible Released Time class violated federal and state law,” Denney asserted in his correspondence. “Release for future classes should be reinstated immediately.”