School responds to parent protests over busing to religious classes
by Laura Edghill
Posted 5/03/16, 03:00 pm
A public school settled out-of-court last week with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois regarding a longstanding practice of busing students an hour early to school for optional religious instruction.
Teutopolis Grade School is home to approximately 575 students in a village of about 1,500 people two hours southeast of the state capital, Springfield. The school leases its building from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, and the optional religious instruction is offered at the school in conjunction with nearby St. Francis of Assisi Church. District buses bring students to school in time for 8 a.m. mass, prayer service, or religious instruction. Students opting out of the church activity have been free to wait in the school gym, on the playground, or in the computer lab until classes begin at 9 a.m.
Some students felt unfairly stigmatized by the arrangement, though, and their parents complained, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to get involved.
“When government practices favor one particular religious group, the religious liberty of everyone is diminished,” said Rebecca Glenberg, an ACLU senior staff attorney.
The new agreement states that starting this fall, buses will arrive just 15 minutes before the school day begins instead of one hour. The settlement also more clearly stipulates that non-religious community groups such as 4-H can have access to the building for after-school programs.
“We have reached a resolution that protects students from being stigmatized or excluded simply because their family is not of the majority faith,” Glenberg said.
The existing arrangement arose several generations ago from the desire of the overwhelmingly Catholic community to provide access to religious instruction for children.
“It is unique in that there is just one church in town, and it’s a Catholic church,” superintendent Bill Fritcher said, “so the vast majority of the populace are members of that church.”
Public school districts are charged with carefully balancing the administration of public education with the values of local communities, Fritcher explained. The ACLU complaint prompted the district leadership to thoroughly examine the busing arrangement and its constitutionality.
“Our hope was that we could make an adjustment that was satisfying to them, while at the same time maintain the integrity of what the community is all about,” Fritcher said. “The ACLU has honestly been pretty reasonable to deal with.”
The district is still working out the details, but the goal moving forward is to produce a busing schedule that complies with the settlement. School start times and after-school activity schedules for the district’s grade school, middle school, and high school will likely need modification, as well. Teutopolis students will still have access to religious education either before or after school, but most likely without district-sponsored busing.
“We understand the value that the church plays in the community. It’s the central focus of the community, without a doubt,” Fritcher said. “We have a responsibility to uphold the values that the community expects.”
The Teutopolis school district is also among those targeted recently by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In September, the district agreed to discontinue its practice of opening school board meetings with a prayer.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.