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Indiana school district refuses to cancel pastor-led program; calls for apology from atheist group

An atheist group tried to block a pastor-led leadership program at an Indiana school. The school district fired back in a letter, stating that the group had its facts wrong and the pastors were not leading religious instruction of any sort. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

An Indiana school district fired back at an atheist group that tried to force it to discontinue a pastor-led leadership program at one of the district's schools.

The Elevate Students program, run by two Assemblies of God pastors from Heartland Christian Center, allows students to participate in leadership-building skills during their lunch period, the Christian Post reported.

What's the story?

About two weeks ago, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a legal notice to East Porter County School Corporation Superintendent Rod Gardin calling for the school to stop the program, citing that it was in violation of the Establishment Clause.

FFRF, one of the nation's largest atheist legal organizations advocating for the strict separation of church and state, claims it received complaints from concerned parents about the program.

"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the District to offer religious leaders access to befriend and proselytize students during the school day on school property," FFRF attorney Ryan Jayne wrote in a Jan. 10 letter obtained by The Christian Post.

Six days later, the FFRF published a news release on its website about the alleged infraction.

How did Gardin respond?

On Tuesday, Gardin fired back in a letter stating that the group had its facts wrong and the pastors were not leading religious instruction of any sort and that the school would not cancel the program.

"I spoke with the facilitator of the program, Matt Willingham. Mr. Willingham confirmed that no verses from any type of religious text are used," Gardin wrote. "He added that he would be happy to meet with any parent or group of parents who would like to know more about Elevate Students."

The superintendent added that he had reviewed video clips from the program, spoken with the pastors leading the program, as well as with the students involved, and he found no evidence of any Bible lessons, verses, or religious teaching within the course, according to the Christian Post.

"The students' comments have been transcribed for improved legibility and are enclosed," Gardin's letter said. "You will find that none of the students described any type of spiritual awakening or realization. What they learned were life principles that are religion neutral that will assist them in developing into adults who can lead their families and communities in productive ways."

Gardin noted that earlier in the school year, one parent filed a complaint about the Elevate Students program. After addressing the parent's concerns and informing the parent that the program was secular, Gardin said there were no further complaints.

What else?

The superintendent also requested that FFRF retract and apologize for its Jan. 16 news release about the school's program.

"Since it has been demonstrated the school corporation is not allowing preachers to proselytize at one of our schools, I request you remove the erroneous information from your website regarding this topic and replace it with a retraction apologizing for the error," Gardin wrote.

No retraction, updates, or corrections had been posted on the FFRF website at press time.

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