Lunchtime religious public school group disbanded, thanks to FFRF

1harrisburgThe Freedom From Religion Foundation has gotten an outsider-led lunchtime religious group at an Illinois public school disbanded.

School administrators at Harrisburg Middle School were allowing a Baptist minister to lead a religious session during lunch hour. He offered free pizza and soda to students who joined the group. Parents received a permission slip asking them to allow their child to "meet occasionally with a youth minister representing the Baptist denomination during lunch break at the middle school."

It was inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders access to befriend and proselytize students during the school day on school property, FFRF stressed. No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors—a captive audience—in a public school.

"It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a public school may not advance, prefer or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in February to Harrisburg School District Superintendent Michael Gauch. "Allowing church representatives access during school hours to proselytize and recruit students for religious activities is a violation of the Establishment Clause. This practice demonstrates an unlawful preference not only for religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over all other faiths." 

Gauch quickly responded that the Harrisburg Board of Education would have to address the matter, and once it did, he would get back to FFRF. 

After waiting for months, Jayne sent a reminder letter, pointing out that Gauch had not followed up on the matter, as he had promised. This time, the missive elicited a desired response. 

"Please be advised that the Board of Education did consider the matter of a local minister meeting with students during lunchtime last semester," Gauch replied in an email. "Following the school board's directive, school administration instructed the local minister that he would no longer be allowed to come onto school property and meet with students during the lunchtime or anytime during the instructional day."

FFRF welcomes the outcome.

"We were taken aback when we learned about a minister being allowed to preach to middle school kids on the premises during school hours," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're pleased we played a part in getting this outrageousness ended."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheist organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with nearly 24,000 members all over the country, including more than 700 in Illinois.

 

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.

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