MO. Public School Agrees To Religious Neutrality In History Course

Public schools in Independence, Mo., will remain neutral on religious matters and take steps to ensure that religion is not advanced in the classroom under the terms of a legal settlement agreement reached June 12.

The settlement ends a lawsuit filed by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri that challenged religious practices at Truman High School.

Sophomore Ashley Heckman and her mother Evelyn Welk charged that teacher Chris Earley used a World History course to promote Christianity. According to Heckman, students were required to read an essay by a fundamentalist minister attacking evolution, complete Christian worksheets and watch a video that presented biblical stories as historical fact. (See "When Teachers Preach," June 2003 Church & State.)

Under the settlement, Earley has agreed to stop using the video and to refrain from advancing any particular religion, or religion in general, in his classroom. The school denied any wrongdoing but agreed to enforce its policy of religious neutrality.

"Public schools can teach about religion, but they must be careful not to cross the line into promoting any certain faith," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This settlement will help preserve that important balance in Independence."

Ayesha N. Khan, Americans United legal director, said the settlement avoids a costly and drawn-out lawsuit.

"Ashley Heckman and her mother felt strongly that the classroom practices were constitutionally troublesome," said Khan. "The school has agreed to address their concerns, and we applaud that action."