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School board upholds decision to ban ministers’ lunch visits

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–A Kentucky school board has upheld its decision to prohibit ministers from visiting students at school during lunch despite protests from a local church.

Pastors from Little Flock Baptist Church outside Louisville said for 17 years the school system had allowed students to request that their ministers eat lunch with them at school, but in January Bullitt County School Superintendent Michael Eberbaugh instructed schools to end the visits.

“The Kentucky Education Reform Act says our responsibility as community members is to mentor the children and provide good examples and leadership for them, and so that’s what we were doing when we were at the schools,” Zach Montroy, communications director at Little Flock, told Baptist Press. “We weren’t evangelizing and we weren’t passing out literature. We weren’t praying with the students. We were simply there to be their friends and mentors.”

Montroy said the church received a letter from Larry Belcher, principal of Hebron Middle School, backing up the church’s claims and confirming the school had no problems with the pastors.

The Bullitt County school system’s policy states “students are not permitted to bring guests or visitors to school without permission from the principal.”

The ministers said they had been accustomed to signing in and out as visitors each time they had lunch with the students.

“We cannot allow individuals to just sign themselves in anytime they want to,” Layne Abell, chairman of the school board, said.

The school system said it was not aware of the ministers’ practices until some school staff members expressed concern in January.

In response to the decision, Little Flock members and others in the community began staging protests outside Hebron Middle School and North Bullitt High School as well as at the school district’s central office. Students participated in the protests by circulating petitions for the return of the ministers, according to The Louisville Courier-Journal.

Little Flock obtained the legal help of a firm in Louisville as well as Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice. They planned to file a lawsuit against the school board for discriminating against ministers by prohibiting them from eating lunch with students when requested.

Supporters of the church staff filled Bullitt Central High School’s 500-seat auditorium for the Feb. 17 school board meeting, and Ronald Shaver, pastor of Little Flock, said he urged a few hundred who could not fit inside to go home, The Courier-Journal reported.

The church presented its case to the school board, reiterating the 17-year-old policy of allowing the ministers to eat lunch with the students. But the school board said a lot has changed in 17 years.

“It’s apparent our society is becoming more complex,” Charles Haynes, senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., told The Courier-Journal. “There are more and more people who will want access to students, for whatever reason, and some of them won’t be as wonderful as these pastors.”

After hearing the church’s case, the school board called for a recess and then went into closed session. They decided to uphold the superintendent’s original decision to end the visits and added that only parents would be allowed to have lunch with their students, Montroy said.

Beth Wilson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said in The Courier-Journal that as long as Bullitt schools are enforcing the policy neutrally, the district should be on sound legal footing.

“We’ve decided not to file a legal suit against the school board now because they’ve decided not to let anybody in schools,” Montroy said.

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  • Erin Curry