An Arkansas public school district has banned youth pastors and other religious groups from visiting during school hours after a Wisconsin group filed a complaint and called the practice “predatory.”
“We have temporarily suspended allowing these youth pastors and other faith based leaders to come in during the lunch hour and we are reviewing policy and the law,” Conway Public School Supt. Greg Murry told Fox News.
The school district has retained the services of Liberty Institute, a law firm known for handling religious liberty cases.
“Conway Public School District retained Liberty Institute to conduct an investigation of the issues regarding equal access for visitors to the school and make a report and recommendation to the District on or before February 12,” general counsel Jeff Mateer said.
The practice of allowing youth ministers to visit students during the lunch hour has been a longtime tradition in many Southern states. Murry, who became superintendent six years ago, said the practice had been in place long before he arrived.
And until recently, not a single person had complained.
That changed when the district received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that has a long history of targeting and threatening school districts that welcome religious activities.
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for Conway Public Schools to offer Christian ministers unique access to befriend and proselytize students during the school day on school property,” attorney Patrick Elliott wrote the district. “No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors – a captive audience – in a public school. This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags.”
The particular incident that drew the attention of the FFRF happened when a youth minister visited some of his young parishioners in a school cafeteria. The parents of a child who was also sitting at the table – but not a member of the church – took offense.
“This youth pastor was sitting having a conversation with students from his church,” Murry said. “The parents found that offensive.”
The FFRF accused the school of violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“In many cases, we have found that the pastor uses the school to befriend students with the goal of spreading a Gospel message and recruiting members for his church’s youth group,” Elliott wrote. “This sort of entanglement between religion and public education is unseemly and inappropriate.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, blasted the “outlandish demand” of the FFRF and said they were “out to lunch.”
“Local ministers interacting with their membership at their local school may be a threat to their vision of a godless education system, but it is not a threat to the Constitution,” Perkins told Fox News. “Parents and local school officials need to aggressively push back against these anti-Christian groups that are seeking to restrict the rights of Americans.”
It’s not the first time the Freedom From Religion Foundation has attacked the Conway school system. Several years ago, they were successful in forcing the school to stop allowing The Gideons International from giving Bibles to students.
Ironically, the Gideons are allowed to distribute Bibles and share their message in Russian schools.
Supt. Murry said the threat of a possible lawsuit puts the district between a rock and a hard place.
“We obviously have a responsibility to do what we are legally authorized to do,” he said. “We will abide by the law.”
It’s unclear how long the lunch time visits will be suspended.
“We want to do what’s right and what’s legal and we also understand in our community it’s certainly by and large a very acceptable thing for this to happen,” Murry said.