The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging its hometown school district to sever an unwise partnership with a local church.
FFRF is asking the Madison (Wis.) Metro School Board not to continue a pilot micro-school program serving a small number of disruptive students from La Follette High School that it has hastily set up at a church.
This arrangement at Life Center Madison is fundamentally problematic and should not have been approved, FFRF is contending in a firm letter to the school board and in testimony yesterday.
“A program involving religious volunteers in schools, where clergy were enlisted to ‘counsel groups of students regarding secular topics,’ was found unconstitutional,” FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote. “While it is laudable to help provide mentors to district students, partnering with a religious group is an inappropriate means of doing so.”
Jayne’s testimony before the school board on April 30 in front of a packed audience that included hundreds of teachers was in the same vein.
“As someone who has dedicated my professional career to fighting state/church violations, particularly in public schools, I can tell you that utilizing volunteers from a faith-based organization to mentor at-risk public school students raises a major red flag,” Jayne said. “The best means to ensure that school programs are operated legally from a state/church perspective is for the district itself to operate the programs, and if that isn’t feasible then a secular group should be found to provide mentors for these students.”
Jayne highlighted other complications. “A long-term relationship where the district pays a church $1,300 per week, which is what the district is currently paying Life Center, is problematic,” he said.
FFRF expresses its overall backing of the pilot program, which is commendable in its objective. But it has grave reservations about an extended partnership between the district and a local church, which creates an appearance that the district endorses the church and the faith-based group that it has partnered with.
“It’s outrageous that this expensive, last-minute program in a church, conducted by church members, was approved,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who reveals that her office has fielded calls from teachers and other Madison residents concerned about the irregular arrangement. “Public school classes should never take place in a religious setting, particularly when it involves a mentor program with volunteers sent from the church. The district ought to have found secular resources for this program.”
FFRF is asking that the Madison Metro School Board not extend its lease with Life Center Madison into the next school year, and that in the future the board instead partner with secular groups for any similar arrangements.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., and founded there in 1976. FFRF has more than 33,000 members across the country, including over 1,300 in Wisconsin.