Huntington County school officials shouldn't be surprised if the federal magistrate considering a challenge against a religious education program rules against them. The district's assertion that the popular program could be in jeopardy holds little weight against the fact that it defies the separation of church and state with respect to education.
A parent filed suit against the Huntington County Community School Corp. alleging the district violated the rights of a Horace Mann Elementary School student through a weekday religious education program offered by Associated Churches of Huntington. Students are released from class to attend the program in a trailer parked on school grounds.
U.S. District Magistrate Roger B. Cosbey, who heard arguments in the case Wednesday, said the sticking point appeared to be "a plain ol' trailer."
But the point is not the trailer; it's the fact that it is parked on school grounds. Released-time programs exist without challenge in school districts across the nation, but they must not be held on school property – a point reinforced in case law and one school officials in Huntington should note.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 ruled against the Champaign, Ill., schools in a case in which religious education classes "show the use of tax-supported property for religious instruction and the close cooperation between school authorities and the religious council in promoting religious education."
The Huntington case will most certainly fuel charges of an attack on religion by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose attorney is representing the plaintiff. But critics should note that the ACLU is also challenging a charter school in Minnesota. The Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a tax-supported public school, blurs the line between religion and public education by sharing space with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and by promoting prayer in school, the ACLU charges.
Parents are unlikely to recognize a subtle endorsement of religion when the faith in question is their own. But Huntington school officials should consider if their support of the religious education trailer's presence would extend to a Muslim program.
The Founding Fathers got it right with the First Amendment protection of religion. A clear line between church and public education is best for both churches and schools.