School District Refuses Atheist Demand to Dissolve Pastor-Led Program as Offering Has No Religious Content

KOUTS, Ind. — A school district in Indiana has refused a professing atheist group’s request that it dissolve a pastor-led program during the lunch period after investigating the matter and finding that no religious instruction is provided during the offering.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) had sent a letter to the East Porter County School Corporation earlier this month after it had reportedly been contacted by several parents of students who attend Kouts Middle/High School. The parents advised that two pastors from Heartland Christian Church have been leading the voluntary program “Elevate” during lunchtime.

“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders access to befriend and proselytize students during the school day on school property,” the letter read. “No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors—a captive audience—in a public school. This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise red flags.”

FFRF further contended that the fact that the program is voluntary does not alleviate the constitutional infirmities.

“The district cannot allow its schools to be used for religious instruction during the school day,” the correspondence asserted. “We write to request assurances that this practice be stopped immediately.”

However, according to the Christian Post and the Independent Journal Review, Superintendent Rod Gardin responded to FFRF on Tuesday to advise the atheist activist group that it had mischaracterized the Elevate program.

“In response to your assertion that the school corporation is allowing religious instruction to occur during the school day at Kouts Middle/High School through the Elevate Students program, I analyzed the curriculum used in the program,” he wrote. “There is no religious content in the curriculum. There are no Bible verses, references to any spiritual deity, or any activities that expose students to any religious concepts.”

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Gardin also outlined that none of the videos that are shown to students who choose to attend Elevate contain any religious references. He noted that the program teaches character qualities to youth, but from a nonsectarian standpoint.

“I spoke with the facilitator of the program, Matt Willingham. Mr. Willingham confirmed that no verses from any type of religious text are used,” Gardin added. “He added that he would be happy to meet with any parent or group of parents who would like to know more about Elevate Students.”

The superintendent therefore requested that FFRF remove the erroneous information from its website and replace it with an apology.

“It’s unfathomable that public school officials are permitting pastors to come in and sermonize to an essentially captive audience of school kids trying to eat lunch,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor had said in a statement, which is still posted to the group’s press release section. “Surely, they have to know that this is completely inappropriate under the law.”

As previously reported, in 1828, just 52 years after the nation’s founding, Noah Webster, known as the Father of American Scholarship and Education, wrote, “In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed. … No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”

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