By The Associated Press
07.12.10 FORT WAYNE, Ind. — A Fort Wayne schools official says the district likely will stop sending students to a religious-instruction program on school grounds that triggered a federal lawsuit.
School Board President Mark GiaQuinta told The Journal Gazette for a July 9 story that it would be irresponsible to defend an issue that courts have already decided. A similar 2008 lawsuit against Huntington schools was settled after a judge granted the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana a preliminary injunction.
“I think it’s clear that the courts have determined what we are doing violates the Constitution,” said GiaQuinta, who is an attorney. “Legally, it’s already been decided; academically it’s inconsistent with our goal of academic achievement; and fiscally, it’s irresponsible to defend a case that’s already been decided. I would say that’s strike one, two and three. The board members I’ve spoken to — to a person — have expressed the same thing.”
A Haley Elementary School third-grader’s parents sued the district last week in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne, saying she was sent to Bible classes in trailers on school property without their permission. The ACLU of Indiana, which represents the girl’s parents, argues the school violated the First Amendment clause against establishment of religion and the parents’ 14th Amendment right to provide for their own child’s religious education. The suit asks a judge to declare the program unconstitutional and ban it from operating on school property.
Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, since 1944, has offered the weekly classes in which students learn the Bible during school-day sessions in mobile classrooms that are nicknamed “little churches on wheels,” or in some cases at a nearby church building. The group’s website says 80% of local schoolchildren in grades 3, 4 and 5 take part.
ACLU legal director Ken Falk said the suit likely could be dismissed once the school district’s attorney provides assurances the program won’t be offered on school grounds. He said on July 9 that he had not yet heard from the district’s attorney.
Courts have long held that students have the right to exercise their religion in release-time programs as long as they are held off school property, Falk said.