ACLU Applauds South Haven Schools’ Decision to End School Sponsored Religious Instruction

March 16, 2011

SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan applauded a decision by the South Haven Public Schools to adopt comprehensive policies that would end the practice of allowing a local youth minister to proselytize to students during school hours and to recruit students for church functions.

The organization encouraged other districts to adopt similar policies today. “We are encouraged that the school recognized that parents, not public schools, are responsible for deciding when and whether their children receive religious education," said James Rodbard, ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney.

"South Haven schools have taken the first steps to creating an environment where students of all faiths feel comfortable and protected from religious coercion by school volunteers and employees.”

After careful negotiations with the ACLU, the school district approved new policies that respect the religious beliefs of all students.

For instance, in accordance with federal law, the schools may teach about religion in comparative religion, history or literature classes, however teachers and school volunteers must take great care not to proselytize and must remain neutral on matters of religious instruction.

In addition, the district set limits on the use and dissemination of religious materials in school and school sponsored prayer.

In 2009, the ACLU of Michigan wrote a letter to the district on behalf of a South Haven High School student asking the superintendent to put an end to the unlawful practice of permitting and encouraging a lunchroom volunteer, who is also a youth minister at the Hope Reform Church, to proselytize and solicit students to participate in religious activities through his church at the middle and high school during classroom hours.

“As parents and grandparents, it’s our job to teach our children about religion,” said Carol Wiley, the grandmother of the South Haven High School student. “It’s also our job to teach our children that they must stand up for their rights or one day they will find themselves without any. I am happy with the outcome and hope more schools will adopt similar policies.”

During one incident, the youth minister and the South Haven High School Assistant Principal forced Carol’s grandson into an isolated room and attempted to pressure him to pay for a church-based retreat that he signed up for during school hours, but did not attend.

During this ordeal, her grandson was not permitted to call his parents and in fact, his parents were never notified that he signed up for the church retreat.

The ACLU of Michigan continues to monitor the situation in the South Haven School District and encourages other schools to adopt similar policies.

Read the district’s new policies here.

Read the ACLU’s 2009 letter.

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