School System Sued Over Community Service Policy

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - A civil liberties group says a Maryland public school system violated the rights of two students by denying them community service credit for participating in a religious program for Indian children.

In its lawsuit, the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute says Montgomery County Public Schools violated the students' rights to religious freedom, free assembly and equal protection as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Montgomery County schools require all students to complete 60 hours of community service before they graduate. Students who complete more than 200 hours receive a special award.

According to the Rutherford Institute, two students - Joshua and Anna Gale -- spent part of July 2001 on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, helping out at a Vacation Bible School for Indian children.

The program included puppet shows, music, crafts, and Bible lessons.

The Montgomery County school system at first refused to give Joshua community service credit for the time he spent on religious activities such as Bible lessons. After the Rutherford Institute intervened, the school system said Joshua would receive credit for his full 36 hours of service.

However, according to the Rutherford Institute, the school system refused to change its policy, and it informed Joshua and Anna that they will not get credit for any future community service efforts that involve religious activity.

The lawsuit filed on Joshua and Anna's behalf seeks to change what attorneys call the school system's discriminatory policy.

"Religious students like Joshua and Anna Gale, who choose to serve the community through church work...should not be forced into service that doesn't reflect their deeply-help values," said Rutherford President John Whitehead.

"School districts that mandate community service must recognize that the Constitution is wary of government decisions about which private expression is 'valuable' to the community and which isn't," Whitehead said.