FREMONT, Mich. — A school district in Michigan plans to again allow students to leave school during lunchtime for off-site voluntary religious instruction after reviewing the details of the matter following a complaint.
“We temporarily canceled the program while we reviewed parts of the program,” Fremont Public Schools Superintendent Ken Haggart told MLive. “We believe that we were doing nothing wrong.”
As previously reported, 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. “[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.
Following receipt of the complaint, the district sent a letter to parents outlining that as per the advice of attorneys, students would no longer be permitted to attend the lunchtime Bible class. Haggart told reporters that he hoped to restore the arrangement and that the severance would not be permanent.
Attorneys for Perkins then sent a letter to Haggart, stating that it was a mistake to end student attendance and urged immediate reinstatement.
“[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.”
Following a review and a decision to continue the offering in the fall, Haggart told MLive that the district will change how the flyers are distributed going forward, and will ensure that their wording—as created by Perkins—is without issue. The report did not specify exactly what would be done differently in regard to distribution.
“We’re excited to bring the program back,” Haggart said. “It’s a great program for many of our kids who live in Fremont.”