February 2015 Church & State | People & Events

Ohio officials may not require public school districts to partner with churches and faith-based organizations as a condition of taking part in a tax-funded mentoring program, Americans United said recently.

In a letter sent Dec. 17 to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and other officials, Americans United explained that the Community Connectors program, which provides $10 million in 3-to-1 matching grants, violates the First Amendment because it gives religious organizations priority over secular groups.

“Public schools serve students from a wide range of religious and philosophical backgrounds,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United in a press statement. “Turning students over to mentors who may mix preaching with teaching is unconscionable, unwise and unconstitutional.”

The letter comes in response to recent media reports detailing the Ohio Department of Education’s decision to add the religious requirement to the program. One report said the change was made by State Superintendent Richard Ross after consultation with various advisers, including some of Kasich’s staff.

Community Connectors is championed by Kasich, who outlined the program in his 2014 state of the state address. He claims it is a solution to reducing the rate of high school dropouts in Ohio.

“When they give out public funds, states must not favor religious groups over non-religious groups,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser.  “That’s exactly what this program does, and it’s a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution.”

In its letter, Americans United noted that even though the Community Connectors program supposedly contains language barring taxpayer funding of religious organizations for worship, religious instruction or proselytizing, those stipulations are too easy to ignore in practice.

“But this restriction is easy to circumvent by simply not paying the volunteers who are actually going into the schools to mentor students,” AU pointed out. “Many religious folk feel a powerful need to proselytize and see the public schools as a mission field; it is the height of naïveté to simply assume that they will refrain from ministering to students.”

The letter was sent by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Luchenitser and Staff Attorney Ian Smith.