Freethought Today · April 2015

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

It’s paying to complain in Michigan

The Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA), co-founded by FFRF Life Members Holly Huber and Mitch Kahle, successfully complained in March on behalf of parents concerned about religious intrusion in public schools.

Kahle wrote a letter to the principal of Daisy Brook Upper Elementary about allowing bible classes. Kahle said Fremont Public Schools Superintendent Ken Haggart told him the district did transport children to a nearby church for bible study during the previous school year but switched this year to holding monthly bible study in the school gym at lunchtime to save money. About a third of the school's 150 children attended the class.

Haggart told WZZM that the school has returned to its original arrangement in which students are driven off-campus to churches. Haggart told Kahle that the school district won't provide transportation.

Haggart clarified his statement that "as of this point, all clergy will have been permanently banned from Fremont Public Schools and that no organized religious activities will again take place on school property while school is in session, if organized and run by adults." He said in a second email to Kahle, "I wanted to let you know as well that Fremont Public Schools neither encourages nor discourages participation in any religious program. By saying 'clergy are banned' we are referring to the offering or conducting of religious instruction classes. In the event of school tragedies, or needed counseling, or for clergy who have children attending FPS, or other use of the facilities, they are of course welcome to visit our schools."

MACRA also complained about two adults unlawfully leading students in Christian prayer at Cross Creek Charter School in Byron Center. "Clergy and adults are forbidden from participating in any voluntary, student-initiated religious activity that takes place on school property during school hours, including during lunch and recess periods," said Kahle. "Release time is not an opportunity for teachers or administrators to circumvent long-established laws prohibiting organized religion in public schools."

Cross Creek Principal Joe Nieuwkoop told mlive.com that the adults were not school employees, but stressed that "student religious groups or gatherings led by adults will not be allowed to hold meetings during school and/or instructional hours. However, students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs and gatherings before or after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular student activities groups."

MACRA complained in February about Hudsonville Public Schools letting students attend bible club in a recreational vehicle in the parking lot during lunch hour. The district responded that it stopped the practice and told Bible Club Ministries International-Western Michigan to comply with state law.

In a related case MACRA is involved in, the Grand Haven Tribune reported that a group called Citizens of Grand Haven filed suit April 1 against the city in Ottawa County Circuit Court to contest a city council ordinance in January that resulted in removal of a Christian cross from public property on Dewey Hill. The suit claims the council's removal of the area as a public forum gives the appearance the city "is hostile to the cross as religious speech."

Although Mayor Geri McCaleb voted against the ordinance change, she said public entities dealing with groups like MACRA have to be aware of what they do with taxpayer dollars.

Councilman John Hierholzer, who voted for the change, said the city has already spent $12,000 on the issue without going to court.

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