Louisiana school district seeks help in defending religious lunch clubs

Friday, April 2, 1999

Editor’s note: The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Tangipahoa Parish School Board in September 1999 challenging Steve Farmer’s involvement in the lunch clubs. The school board settled the case on June 20, 2000, by adopting a policy that puts restrictions on non-curriculum school clubs. The new policy says that the school board cannot endorse or support clubs, that outsiders like Farmer cannot control or regularly attend the clubs, and that a school staff person will attend meetings to make sure the policy is not violated.

The superintendent of a Louisiana public school district has asked a conservative religious advocacy group to help it defend a policy that allows an evangelical pastor to join and frequently lead student lunch clubs at some schools.

Last month the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union was made aware that several district schools permit a local minister to conduct religious gatherings during the lunch hour. Steve Farmer, director of Face It Ministries, offers students who attend the lunch gatherings pizza and talks about God, according to the Louisiana ACLU.

The ACLU on March 12 sent a letter to Virgil Allen, superintendent of the Tangipahoa Parish School System near New Orleans, demanding that Farmer's involvement with the lunch clubs cease.

“The ACLU of Louisiana calls on you to immediately revoke the policy or practice which allows Mr. Farmer or anyone else similarly situated to conduct religious services at Tangipahoa Parish Schools,” wrote Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “The proper place for such instruction belongs in the home with parents, in places of worship and outside the sphere of government, which must necessarily remain neutral in such matters.”

Some Tangipahoa Parish school officials have not taken kindly to Cook's letter. Al Link, a school board member, belittled the ACLU and claimed “we got to keep God and the good morals and values in the schools.”

Then Allen and the school system's attorneys asked the Rutherford Institute, a conservative religious group based in Virginia, to help defend the lunch meetings.

Jennifer Schans, Rutherford's regional coordinator, said that the school officials were “very upset” about the ACLU's threat of legal action.

“In this situation, you have students asking a local missionary to come in and speak to their group and so there is no violation of the establishment clause,” Schans said.

On behalf of the school officials, Schans sent a letter on March 30 to the state ACLU, calling on the group to cease its “threats of censorship.”

“The Tangipahoa Parish School System and many of its students are distressed at the recent threats to free speech from the ACLU concerning a speaker for one of the school's clubs,” Schans wrote. “The Face It! Lunch Club is a religious student organization with student officers and a club constitution. Tangipahoa Parish allows many diverse student clubs to operate on campus and some of these clubs have off-campus personnel attend their meetings regularly; the Face It! Lunch Club is only one of these latter clubs.”

The ACLU has responded by saying it would begin to prepare legal action against the school system. Cook said that the Rutherford Institute's letter was nothing more than “yahoo crap.”

Cook said Schans had “confused” the facts of the situation. The lunch clubs, he maintained, are school sanctioned and sponsored.

“School officials have been forbidden by the courts to sponsor religious worship or instruction, and they cannot get around that ban by delegating the task to students with some type of shell game called 'student-initiated prayer meetings,'” Cook said. “Some people in Tangipahoa have suggested that Farmer's prayer meetings would restore or promote moral values and solve a host of problems — guns, violence, suicide and teen pregnancy, among others. How simplistic and naïve to think that state-sponsored religion could have any impact on complicated social problems rooted in poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity.”

Schans said she doubted the ACLU would back off its threats of legal action and that her group would “represent the school system as far as its attorneys would let us.”

She also derided the ACLU for creating “fear among people” of religion.