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Group questions church-state separation in Janesville public school

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
March 30, 2010
— The Freedom from Religion Foundation is accusing the Janesville School District of failing to abide by the Constitution’s stricture on the separation of church and state.

The Madison-based organization on Monday issued a news release accusing the district of running a charter school in a church and sending students to a 12-step program that includes an acknowledgment of God.


The school is the CRES Academy, a small charter school whose mission is to help students returning to the district after completing drug or alcohol-treatment programs. It typically has fewer than 12 students.


Director of Instruction Donna Behn said the district covered up all religious items in rooms that the district leases for CRES in the basement of St. John’s Lutheran Church, 302 N. Parker Drive.


The district believes CRES is being operated in accordance with the Constitution, Behn said.


CRES sends students to a privately provided 12-step program associated with Alcoholics Anonymous that is not at St. John’s, Behn said.


“They are not required to (attend 12-step meetings), although they are encouraged because of the situation they are in,” Behn said. “But nobody is forced to participate.”


The Freedom From Religion Foundation said it sent a formal complaint to Superintendent Karen Schulte on Friday. Schulte was away Monday, and Behn was not aware of the complaint.


The foundation’s Annie Laurie Gaylor said just covering up religious items in the rooms is not enough because there’s no way for students to escape the fact they’re going to school in a church.


“In this economy, there should be something else out there where you don’t have to cover up things, and you can’t cover up the cross at the top of the building,” Gaylor said.


“It sends a message to a confused adolescent who has problems that this church and school are the same thing, and they are a captive audience, and they are required to be there,” Gaylor said. “This is the force of law telling them they have go to a church to get help.”


Gaylor said even recommending students attend a 12-step program raises a similar issue, and the district should offer a secular alternative.


“Many treatments are not grounded in supernatural belief, and that’s what we would expect a public school to promote,” Gaylor said. “… I don’t think they did their homework when they set this up.”


The district moved CRES to St. John’s from a commercial building in summer 2009 in a move that was expected to save $28,000 a year. CRES stands for Community Recovery Education and Service.


The district fielded a similar complaint last fall from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said school district counsel David Moore.


Moore drafted a letter in response, but he would not release that document without permission from the district.


Behn said the district never heard back from Americans United.


Gaylor would not say what her organization would do if the district did not make changes.


“We have to let them digest that complaint and then get back to us, but this violation is too egregious to not be corrected,” Gaylor said.


Gaylor said her organization acted on a complaint, which was received last July but not acted on until now by a small legal staff.


“We get complaints from all over the country. We were really just swamped,” she said.



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