Liberty Institute’s suggested amendments to Conway school district’s policy on allowing lunchtime visitors is a “step in the right direction,” according to an official with Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group that complained last year about ministers visiting children during lunch.
Foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliott said the amendments to the district’s policy are good, but he doesn’t believe the policy goes far enough.
“It would limit, to some extent, what access pastors have with students they don’t normally have contact with,” Elliott said.
He said he believes the amended policy presented by Liberty Institute represents a biased view in favor of broad access by religious leaders.
The Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Madison, Wis., advocates for separation of church and state nationwide. The group sent Conway superintendent Greg Murry a notice, written by Elliott, on Oct. 26 that said the group had received reports of a local pastor getting access to students in a school cafeteria during lunch.
The group said it is unconstitutional for the district to offer Christian ministers unique access “to befriend and proselytize” students on school property during school hours.
The district temporarily suspended the lunchtime visits while a review could be conducted on the school district’s existing policy.
Murry sought advice from a legal group in Springdale, Ark., in December, but then retained Liberty Institute pro bono in January after the group was recommended by Anderson Wilkins, K-Life director, according to documents obtained by the Log Cabin Democrat under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
K-Life, a Christian ministry catered to young people, has a presence on most campuses, according to school administrators.
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit law firm that seeks to defend religious liberty in the public arena and was founded to promote free enterprise and Judeo-Christian values, according to the group and their tax exemption forms.
The term “Judeo-Christian values” was struck from the organization’s mission, but the group’s General Counsel Jeff Mateer said most of their clients are Christians. Mateer said the focus became to defend “religious liberty for individuals, churches, and other ministries and organizations.”
Elliott said Liberty’s findings are not surprising.
“We knew once (Liberty Institute) became involved, that was to be the likely outcome,” Elliott said. “The report doesn’t have full information about the past practices. Based on our information, that included youth ministers roaming the cafeteria in at least one of the middle schools and distributing promotional materials.”
Since the complaint was made public, Elliott has heard from other parents who corroborate the original claim, he said.
Elliott said he has received more specific information about K-Life visitors, but he knows representatives from other groups are visiting the schools as well.
The Foundation has no pending legal action, Elliott said.
“We want to see what happens in practice,” he said. “We’ve been contacted by a few parents on this, including parents who are members of the Foundation. They will know better about what will happen on the ground…if there are ongoing issues, then this is something we may still be involved in. I’ve reviewed some of what the superintendent and board members have said and it’s concerning. Their purpose here is religiously motivated. They want (religious visitors) to come to their schools rather than set up a neutral policy.”
Murry previously referred questions about the issue to Liberty. He said previously he wanted to make sure the district’s policy was legal.
Under the school’s current policy, non-religious and religious visitors are both permitted with certain restrictions.
Mateer said Friday he believes any legal challenge to the school’s policy would be unsuccessful.
On Thursday, Liberty Institute released a report of its own review of the school’s policy allowing non-student visitors. The group found the existing policy is “neutral,” and does not advance or inhibit religion.
“It is, in fact, completely agnostic as to the profession or affiliation of any non-student visitors,” according to the findings.
Mateer maintains the school’s policy is constitutional, but he said Friday he will present a suggested amended policy as requested at the Conway Schools Board of Education meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Liberty Institute amended the policy “to ensure that any confusion as to the nature of the policy is avoided and that the policy cannot be exploited in an unconstitutional manner,” according to Liberty’s report.
The recommended policy has some changes in wording and additions of practices Mateer said he believes are already in place.
One change is that visitors to the high school and junior high school will maintain a list of each student with whom the visitor is affiliated. The amendment states the principal of the school may exclude any visitor from engaging with students not on the visitor’s list. Mateer said he understands some ministries have already been doing this at some schools.
At elementary and middle schools, visitors may only have access to students whose parent or legal guardian has consented to the visit.
In all schools, the policy states a principal shall take reasonable efforts to segregate visitors and the students they are visiting from other students, such as providing a separate table for visitors and the students they are visiting.
“It’s up to the board to make a decision to implement our recommended change to the policy,” Mateer said. “From then, from my view point, it should be over.”
(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)