Legal threats from an atheist organization shut down an extracurricular Bible club at a Tennessee public school but that action may prove to be temporary.
Bartlett School District was allowing the Bible club to meet before the start of the school day at Altruria Elementary until the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation learned of the club and complained it was unconstitutional.
Bartlett, a city of approximately 59,000, is located in the suburbs of Memphis.
FFRF apparently claimed a teacher leading the club violated the U.S. Constitution and school leaders seemed to agree. A school official told local media that the club must be sponsored by an "outside group" and the school was seeking an outside sponsor for the next school year.
The controversy got noticed by Todd Starnes of Fox News Radio, who got his hands on a copy of the letter from FFRF attorney Rebecca Mackert. The atheist group's attorney not only claimed a teacher-sponsored club is illegal but that the club itself is illegal.
"The Establishment Clause prohibits religious clubs," Mackert wrote, "because elementary students are too young to truly run a club entirely on their own initiative with no input from school staff or outside adults, and school employees may not organize a religious club for students."
A "State/Church FAQ" written by FFRF further explains the claim. The federal Equal Access Act prohibits public high schools from discriminating against student clubs, including religious clubs. But the atheist group goes on to claim that elementary-age children obviously cannot organize their own clubs hence a religious club would normally be led by a school official.
FFRC also claims in the "FAQ" area that a teacher cannot promote, lead or participate in a religious club's meeting - but then goes on to state that a school principal must serve as an advisor to an anti-religious "secular club" if there is no teacher advisor available.
Despite the claims made by FFRF, attorney Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute says Altruria Elementary did not violate the Constitution.
"There is absolutely nothing unconstitutional or illegal about Bible clubs – before-school hours (or) after-school hours," Dacus says. "The courts have already addressed this issue in the past. This is just saber-rattling and intimidation."
That opinion was seconded by Center for Religious Expression attorney Nate Kellum, who told Starnes the Establishment Clause "requires government neutrality toward religion, not hostility."
CRE was contacted by parents of a Bartlett student who participated in the club and Kellum has written to the school district on their behalf.