Michigan schools tighten rules for religious clubs due to FFRF

A Michigan school district has tightened its rules for a religious school club due to a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

A local community member had informed FFRF that First Priority, a religious club that meets during lunchtime at Tri County High School in Howard City, Mich., was regularly attended or led by local pastor George Bolivion. School music teacher Allison Petriella reportedly promoted the club in her classes, encouraging students to participate, sometimes telling them they should take a club flyer because they "need Jesus."

FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne stressed to the school district the problems with this situation.

"District employees who promote religious clubs during the school day violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages," Jayne wrote to Tri County Area Schools Superintendent Allen Cumings. "The Equal Access Act, which allows the First Priority club to form, requires that 'employees or agents of the school or government are present at religious meetings only in a nonparticipatory capacity.' Any school religious clubs must be bona fide student clubs that are both student-initiated and student-run." 

The school district recently responded to FFRF that it's taking care of the organization's concerns.

Staff members will be allowed to participate in the club only as monitors and will be restrained from promoting the club, Marshall W. Grate, legal counsel for Tri County Area Schools, informed FFRF. Outside individuals, such as pastors and ministers, will be prohibited from attending the clubs during schools hours. And the club will not be allowed to meet during lunchtime, unless the school district formally designates that period as a time for non-curriculum clubs to meet.

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker is heartened by the assurances.

"Public schools should not be seeing such breaches of the constitutional barrier between state and church," he says. "We're gratified that Tri County Area Schools is taking active steps to repair the wall."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog organization with 23,700 nonreligious members nationwide, including more than 600 in Michigan.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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