A law firm representing a pastor who runs a voluntary off-campus Bible program in Michigan has demanded that a public school district that recently banned its students from taking part in the lunchtime Bible study stop violating state and federal law by infringing upon the students' rights to participate in the program.
As previously reported, Fremont Public Schools recently halted the Release Time Bible Study program offered for over 10 years at two elementary schools in the school district after it had received complaints from the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA).
Although the program was initially offered on campus, the program was moved off campus years ago after MACRA complained about the legality of holding such a program on school grounds. The program was then moved to a local church and students were given permission to leave during lunchtime to take part in the program.
Earlier this month, the school district's lawyers advised that the program be canceled altogether after MACRA told that school district that it had received a complaint that the school was "promoting religion" because it was handing out fliers advertising the program to parents.
After the cancellation, Fremont Superintendent Ken Haggart told The Christian Post that the school district was simply looking to "examine what we are doing, make sure it follows the guidelines of the law, and bring the program back next fall."
However, news of the program's cancellation did not go over well with some parents and the pastor who runs the Release Time Bible Study program, John Perkins.
On Perkins' behalf, attorney Timothy Denney of the Michigan-based law firm Rickard, Denney, Garno & Associates sent a demand letter to Haggart last Friday, explaining that the school's move to cancel the Bible study program comes despite the fact that there is solid legal justification to let the program continue.
Denney, who is allied with the Alliance Defending Freedom, pointed out that a Michigan law authorizes the release of public school students for released time religious instruction for up to two hours per week as long as parents and guardians give permission.
"If a permission slip from a student's parent or guardian is provided, it is mandatory, not optional for Michigan public schools to release students for released time religious instructions," Denney asserted.
He added that both the Michigan Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court (Zorach v. Clauson) have approved the release of public school students for off-campus religious classes. Such classes are referred to as "released time" classes.
"Also, it is worth noting that a very diverse group of organizations, including the ACLU and the Christian Legal Society, have co-signed a 'Joint Statement on Current Law on Religion in the Public Schools' which confirms that 'schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided the schools do not encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who do not attend."
Denney added that judicial precedent establishes that public schools must hand out fliers advertising religious events if they also hand out fliers for private secular events.
"More importantly, at least three other high-level federal courts have ruled that if a public school hands out fliers advertising private secular community group literature, it violates the federal constitution for them to refuse to hand out fliers for religious community groups," Denney wrote.
"In short, the rule of law is that private religious groups are entitled to the same equal access to school literature distribution as any other community groups."
Denney added that a 40-year-old state regulation that bans teachers and school staff from soliciting attendance of religious instruction classes is "outdated," in violation of the federal constitution and "unenforceable."
Ultimately, the school district's move to ban the release of students for the Bible study program "violated federal and state law," he maintained.
"Release for future classes should be reinstated immediately," Denney wrote. "This shut down should not be repeated."
He also demanded that the school district "make it clear" to news outlets that the school has determined, after a review, that the release of students to the Bible program is consistent with state and federal law.
"As a result of the school's decision, there have been several inaccurate media reports inaccurately suggesting that off-campus Bible released time classes are unlawful," Denney wrote.
Commenting on reports quoting Haggart as saying that the program could return next year, MACRA responded with a post on social media.
"Superintendent Ken Haggart just doesn't get it. White Christian privilege is ingrained in his DNA," the MACRA post states. "The 'Bible Release' program is cancelled for now, but in the Fall, MACRA will place Daisy Brook [Elementary] on its list of schools for special monitoring to assure continued compliance with the law and Constitution."