Parents challenge religious activities in Michigan charter school

Tuesday, April 6, 1999

A group of parents in a Michigan county has brought suit against a charter school claiming its officials are incorporating Christianity into the school's curriculum.

In an amended complaint filed late last week in federal court, the five parents represented by a Holland, Mich., attorney and the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union claim the Vanguard Charter School Academy has violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The parents argue that officials at the school, which is not far from Grand Rapids, have unconstitutionally permitted and at times encouraged an array of religious activities to seep into the school day. Charter schools differ from traditional public schools in that they are formed by groups of citizens who then exercise greater control over the school's curriculum and policy. Nonetheless, charter schools remain public because government funds are used to create and maintain them.

According to the suit, school officials have allowed teachers and administrators to participate in prayer on campus during the school day, a local Baptist church to conduct worship services at the school two days a week and students to distribute religious tracts at all times during the school day.

The lawsuit also cites an incident last fall in which Vanguard officials canceled school to conduct a mandatory in-service training for all teachers and administrators. The in-service training was dubbed a “moral focus retreat,” and was conducted at a local Christian church. Besides being treated to Christian music and prayer, the teachers and administrators heard a Baptist minister's lecture, the parents' suit claims.

According to the suit, the minister told the teachers that “we are shaping precious lives which are first of all made in the image of God; and we must commit ourselves to freeing them to consider moral absolutes, all ten of them (the Ten Commandments) and all of which come from God.”

Finally, the parents claim that creationism is taught as a scientific theory in the school's science courses. Their suit asks the court to declare the school's activities unconstitutional and to enter an injunction against the activities.

“Charter schools are public schools and so are bound by the Constitution's prohibition against the establishment of religion,” Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU, said. “The evidence here is overwhelming that Vanguard has ignored this requirement to promote its own agenda.”

Al Couch, Vanguard's principal, has told the Associated Press that he knows the school is “public” and that “we can't teach or philosophize a particular religious belief.” Calls placed to the school were unanswered.