Kansas school district bars ministers from visiting students during school hours

Friday, March 23, 2001

For nearly 15 years, young pastors with the Youth for Christ ministry have met with high school students in Topeka, Kan., during their lunch hour, offering advice on everything from peer pressure to teen pregnancy to violence.

Mike Seibert, the ministry’s school coordinator, says the visits enabled him to help students steer clear of gangs, finish high school and improve their family lives.

But school officials with the Seaman Unified School District 345, which serves the northern part of Topeka, decided they had had enough of the visits. Determining the lunchtime sessions were too religious in nature, the school board on March 12 banned all such meetings.

The Topeka Capital-Journal quoted district Superintendent Kent Hurn as saying: “Our board felt that there was too much mixing of religion going on instead of support.”

But Seibert, who has appealed the board’s decision, says the visits are more about encouragement than evangelism.

“The real kicker is, this issue is not about religion,” Seibert said in a telephone interview. “We’re youth ministers who meet with the kids during lunch but talk with them about things other than religion. We’re confident that if the board understood that, they [would] allow us back on campus.”

Hurn and members of the district’s Board of Education were attending a national school board conference this week and were not available for comment.

But a district spokeswoman said the board simply was upholding a decision it made in 1999 to discontinue the ministers’ visits during the lunch hour. That decision had not been enforced until last week.

The board plans to act on Seibert’s appeal during its April 9 meeting, the spokeswoman said.

One expert on First Amendment religious-liberty rights said the board’s decision could be problematic if the religious aspect of the visits was the sole reason for banning them.

“I can imagine a lot of reasons why a school would want to keep nonparental adults from visiting during school hours,” said Anthony Picarello, legal counsel for the Becket Fund. “But basing it on religious content is not such a good one.”

School officials asked if Seibert could provide counseling services before or after school hours. But Seibert said lunchtime often offers the best and only time to meet with troubled students. Some have family obligations, work or extracurricular activities that make it difficult to meet at other times, he said.

Seibert mentioned one student who was involved with a gang and was trying to get out.

“Seeing him at lunch was one way to encourage him to check in with administrators during the day and stay in school,” he said. “And he has.”

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