INDIANAPOLIS – A northeastern Indiana public school district said Friday it will no longer allow a local youth minister to address students during their lunch hour, announcing its new policy less than a half-hour after a lawsuit was filed in federal court challenging the practice.
John and Linda Buchanan, whose 11-year-old daughter attends Summit Middle School in For Wayne, sued the Southwest Allen County school district in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne, claiming the practice violated the First Amendment. The family is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
The lawsuit claimed a youth pastor from a church attended by many local families regularly visited lunch at Summit Middle School, standing in a "prominent location" in the lunchroom and talking with students who are required to eat there. The minister was allowed to hand out materials and move from table to table, talking with children, the claim states. The suit does not specify whether the materials were religious in nature.
"Many of the children recognize him as a religious leader. No other persons who are not associated with the school are allowed to stand in the lunchroom like this. This is coercive and represents an endorsement of religion," the complaint alleges.
Linda Buchanan, 44, said Friday that she became aware of the practice after her daughter brought home religious anti-abortion literature from a school health fair. She said the school principal told her the minister was not supposed to approach any of the children, but "if they approach him he can speak to them."
She said she and her husband, who moved to Indiana from Atlanta about two years ago, had never seen anything similar during their years attending public school and felt the practice was wrong. Other parents the couple contacted were also unaware of the practice, she said.
"We're not a bunch of heathens," Linda Buchanan said. "We're not anti-religion; we're anti-religion in public school."
The court confirmed by email that the lawsuit was entered into its electronic docket at 8:45 a.m. Friday. ACLU attorney Ken Falk said the school district's attorney phoned him at around 9 a.m. to say the district was ending the practice. Falk said the lawsuit would be dropped once the civil rights group receives formal notice from the district.
William "Tuck" Hopkins, the school district's attorney, said later Friday that he had emailed that notice to Falk.
"Hopefully, this thing is over and it won't be anything that will create any problems for students at Southwest schools," Hopkins said.
Hopkins said the minister visits were not part of any school program. But he said it wasn't unusual for school buildings to be used by organizations, including religious groups. Sometimes new congregations even hold Sunday services in school buildings, he said.
Neither the church nor the youth minister involved were named in the lawsuit, but Linda Buchanan said the group was the non-denominational church The Chapel. Patrick Fischl, who is listed as The Chapel's middle-school minister on the church's website, did not return a phone call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Courts have repeatedly restricted interaction between schools and religion since 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school officials cannot require students to begin each school day in organized prayers by saying a state-composed prayer.