Georgia after-school reading program prompts church-state questions

Wednesday, October 14, 1998

Georgia's department of education has allotted public funds to a gaggle of religious institutions as part of a state effort to fund an after-school reading program.

The program, touted by the Georgia Department of Education as “a quality after-school reading program for students in grades four through eight,” has been questioned by a state senator and criticized as an improper entanglement of church and state by a national religious-liberty group.

In May, Gov. Zell Miller signed the state budget containing a $10 million appropriation for the program, called Georgia's Reading Challenge. Last week, the State Board of Education, an agency of the education department, handed out grants to at least six religious organizations to operate after-school reading programs.

The state superintendent's guidelines for operating the program contain no assurances that the private religious schools would not proselytize. Neither do the guidelines specify what books will be used, except to note that the materials “are research-based and proven effective with students.”

Some of the sectarian groups receiving state funds include the Greater Tabernacle of Faith Christian Center, In His Image Ministry Inc., St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church of Atonement, Atlanta Korean Baptist Church Inc., and FBC Outreach Ministries, Inc.

The contract the recipients are to sign does state that they are “to ensure the program is in no way religious in nature.”

That one-line warning against proselytizing, however, has not assuaged those concerned about the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

State Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker told the Savannah Morning News that the Senate thought the grants would be going only to public schools. He expressed disappointment with the Department of Education's decision to include sectarian schools.

“I think we are getting close to the bridge between government and religion,” Walker told the newspaper.

A national religious-liberty group based in Washington, D.C., has also been contacted with concerns about Georgia's Reading Challenge.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that the group's legal department had already received several questions regarding the constitutionality of the program.

“The idea of giving public money to religious groups to provide socials services is all the rage now,” Boston said. “It is not surprising then that the concept has spilled over into education. Nonetheless, what people forget is that education must play by different rules, for young people are impressionable — they are different from adults and are susceptible to proselytization.”

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has permitted public school teachers to enter private schools to teach remedial math and reading classes, it has yet to decide whether churches and other religious institutions could operate such classes in their own buildings using public funds.

No one in the department would comment on the reading program.

State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, however, did issue a news release last week after The Atlanta Journal and Constitution ran a report raising questions about the constitutionality of the program.

The news release attacked the paper's report and defended the program. “It is not unconstitutional for the state to fund after-school programs housed in any location,” the release stated. “After-school does not equate to school.”

Boston, however, said that the “concept of tax-supported religion cuts to the core of the establishment clause” of the First Amendment. He added that “no one should be forced to pay for religion.”