When one receives a piece of mail from the American Civil Liberties Union, it’s almost never a good thing.
The Edon Northwest School District found that out the hard way, as they were sent a letter by Drew Dennis, Staff Attorney and Litigation Coordinator for the ACLU of Ohio.
According to his letter, Dennis claims that the district has violated the United States Constitution’s First Amendment with two of its policies. First, the Edon student handbook states that the school will uphold Christian values, and he attached a copy of the page in which this is stated in the letter. Second, Christian ministers were allowed to speak at holiday assemblies in which students were required to attend, and that the only way to be excused from said assemblies was parental consent.
The ACLU of Ohio is used to handling cases involving potential violations of the Constitution, as Dennis made clear.
“Our office receives hundreds of complaints a month.”
A good number of those complaints deal with the same issues raised in his complaint to the Edon School District.
“We send out many letters concerning possible violations, particularly religious freedoms.” Dennis said.
In his letter to Edon schools, Dennis stressed the dangers in having an institution of the state enacting such regulations. Citing The School District of Abingdon Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, he was quick to use the decision to point out that “when the power, prestige, and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”
In order to stop such potential coercion, Dennis is currently working with the school to sort out the matter.
“We are in discussions, and we’re monitoring the situation.” Stated the attorney.
While the ACLU is adamant about getting the district to change its policies, they would prefer to go a more diplomatic route than litigation.
“It’s safe to say that no one wants to go to court.” Dennis confessed.
As for what will happen if the school’s reaction to the allegations do not properly satisfy the perceived violations of the Constitution, Dennis elected not to go into detail until that bridge is actually crossed.
“We would have to see what happens later down the road.”
If Dr. John Granger, Superintendent of Edon Northwest Local Schools has anything to do with it, that particular path won’t be explored. After receiving Dennis’ letter, Granger, only two months into his tenure at Edon, wasted little time investigating its claims.
“Since the date of that letter, I’ve asked a lot of questions.”
And the answers to those questions have not been exonerating for the district, as the new superintendent discovered. After openly admitting that the school has acted in violation of the First Amendment, Granger vowed to make alterations to its policies.
“I’m not going to knowingly violate the law.” The Interim Superintendent proclaimed.
One portion of the letter with which Dr. Granger did take issue was a records request made by Dennis. That request asked for the school to provide all writings, documents, papers, text files, photographs, computer files, emails, audio and video recordings, annals, archives, journals, logs, notes, and drafts dating back from August 1, 2012 to the present date.
As for the actual information requested, seventeen items were listed in the letter. These included; all correspondences between school board member, school staff, faculty, or administration pertaining to any Christmas and Thanksgiving assemblies, or any other assembly in which a religious leader spoke or prayer was offered; all records which recorded, announced, or planned any school assembly attended by students from from fifth grade to twelfth; all district newsletters; a record of course listings at the high school and junior high school levels; and a record showing the textbooks adopted for every course in every grade, just to name a few. The ACLU offered to pay for all reasonable copying and mailing costs.
Due to the sheer amount of labor required to do so, Dr. Granger told a representative of the ACLU that those records would not be sent to them.
“I’m not going to hire a second secretary.” Granger commented on the request. “Nor am I going to make Trish Tingley work sixty hour weeks to comply with the request.”
That doesn’t mean the district is refusing to allow the ACLU access to the information, however.
“They can come to Edon Northwest Schools, and they can have whatever they want.” Offered Granger.
It appears as though that may not be necessary, though. Dr. Granger was led to the impression that bringing the school in compliance with the First Amendment would lead to the civil liberties organization dropping the information request.
As for how Edon Northwest’s compliance will affect the community in which it serves, that remains to be seen. Dr. Granger would like to see minimal change in that area, even when it comes to dealing with religious officials of the village.
“We don’t want this situation to discourage the way we work with the Ministerial Association.” Dr. Granger stated. “I think we can provide them (with) a facility to help the community.”
That relationship is important, not just to the school, but with the residents of Edon in general. For a significant number of parents within the district, the allegations made by the ACLU were not shocking in any way.
“I also have to acknowledge the fact that the majority of the community are okay with this.” Granger said.
This is a point in which both sides agree. In fact, the ACLU addressed this in their letter to Granger, quoting the decision of Lee v. Weisman. In the 1992 court case, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority opinion, “While in some societies the wishes of the majority might prevail…the Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student.” Simply put, if even one student takes issue the religious policy of a public school, even if everyone else supports it, said policy is not acceptable and must be changed.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the presence of any god, Christian or otherwise, has to be completely removed from school grounds. As Dr. Granger points out, that would be an impossible undertaking.
“There’s supposed to be separation of church and state, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t in the schools.”
Indeed, so long as a community at large holds its faith in such high regard, it would be naive to assume that a school district would be able to keep such beliefs outside its doors. Finding the balance between respecting the religious practices of most of their students with the rights of those who wish not to be exposed to them is the task Edon Northwest faces ahead.
Granger will meet with the Edon Ministerial Association on April 8 to discuss options on how to do just that.
T.J. Hug can be reached at