Students at Indiana public school challenge presence of clergy during school hours.

Friday, February 20, 1998

A program in an Indiana public school district that permits local ministers and pastors to counsel students during the normal school day has prompted a federal lawsuit claiming blatant violation of the separation of church and state.

For more than a decade public schools in Marion County have sponsored a Listening Post program in which pastors or ministers associated with a Ministerial Alliance are permitted to counsel students, primarily during the lunch hours.

The county's Decatur Central High School has suspended its Listening Post program in the face of the suit, filed by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two students who seek a constitutional ban of the program.

“The Listening Post is a classic violation of the First Amendment,” Shiela Kennedy, executive director of the ICLU, an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “It is a program that invites ministers from selected denominations into the public schools, during the school day, to counsel students. Their sole purpose is to be available to students who may be experiencing problems that make them emotionally vulnerable, and to offer those students the benefit of the ministers' particular beliefs.”

Decatur Central High School issues guidelines for the Listening Post program which state, in part, that members of the Ministerial Alliance must not attempt to “convert students to their particular church congregation.”

Mary Louise Scheid, community relations coordinator for the school district, points to those guidelines as evidence that the program “is not any kind of an effort to impose religion on students.”

Jim Henderson, senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal and educational organization dedicated to defending religious liberty rights, said that the program's constitutionality rests on its implementation.

“If the school district is using the Ministerial Alliance in an attempt to use local ministers in the counseling program and no one else, then there may be a problem,” Henderson said. “They may have to open the program up to others and make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.”

Henderson suggested the ICLU's lawsuit could be specious if it is simply trying to stop ministers and pastors from talking to students during non-instructional time.

“Allowing students to have access to pastors and ministers is a constitutionally permissible accommodation of religion for students who are compelled to be in school,” he said.

The two unnamed Decatur students claim that ministers involved in the program stop uninvited at cafeteria tables and insist upon praying with them.

The Indianapolis Star, however, has decried the students' lawsuit as an attack on a successful school-sponsored program.

“Pastoral counseling programs have been a godsend to hundreds of central Indiana students coping with the myriad of social problems facing young people,” The Star stated in a recent editorial. “It would further compound the serious problems of our schools if they are forced to discontinue their successful Listening Posts.”

Kennedy questions the necessity of the program.

“While courts have consistently ruled against coerced religion in public schools, they have just as consistently allowed released time programs that offer religious instruction and counseling off the school premises,” Kennedy said. “Unlike the Listening Post, however, those programs require parental permission. Unlike the Listening Post, they respect authority of the family. As parents, we entrust our children to the schools and it is a flagrant breach of that trust to promote counseling by representatives of religious denominations.”

Kennedy added that attorneys for the school district have not yet filed an answer to the lawsuit but are examining the possibility of making changes to the program.