The administrators in Ripley County, Indiana thought they had come up with an ideal way to handle students who were suspended. Instead of letting them stay home, they had to participate in a program that involved completing their homework at a communal facility and doing community service projects. If they didn’t accept that option, they could go in front of a judge:
“We’re looking at short term suspendable offenses here,” [South Ripley Community Schools superintendent Rob] Moorhead said while leading a meeting of county superintendents in Versailles on Wednesday. “They will be required to report there from 8:30 until 11:30 in the morning where they will do their homework sent from their teachers at school. From 11:30 until noon they’ll eat a sack lunch. Noon to 2:30 they’ll do community service activities.”
All of that sounds fine on the surface. The problem began when some of those community service projects were designed to help local churches. That’s when the Freedom From Religion Foundation stepped in on behalf of a community member:
While the goals of the [Ripley County Alternative to Suspension] program are laudable, requiring public school students to participate in church projects raises several constitutional concerns. No students should be forced to choose between violating their right of conscience and being suspended. If any RCATS activities involve the promotion of religion, or if the activities take place on church property, both the County and the students’ school districts will be exposed to legal liability because students will perceive the activities as an endorsement of religion.
In response to the letter, District officials didn’t say they would change what they’re doing but told a local reporter that they were already in the clear. Somehow.
“This program represents a tremendous collaborative effort of many organizations and has the potential to be an extremely positive program. I can assure you that the community service component of R-CATS will be a benefit to the community and our students, and will be in compliance with the Constitution,” Moorhead said in a statement.
No word on whether any church-related projects were shuttered as a result of FFRF’s letter, but at least the administrators now know they’re being watched. The program will go into effect this January.
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