For years, some students in Illinois' Teutopolis School District started their school days off with Catholic mass and prayer services, and the district's bussing schedule revolved around the early-morning prayer routine.
But that meant students who were enrolled in the public school but did not participate in the voluntary prayer services had to catch the early bus at the same time as the kids in the religious program, arriving more than an hour before the first school bell, according to The Associated Press. There were no later buses or alternate transportation schedule in Teutopolis, a village of about 1,500 people some 200 miles south of Chicago in central Illinois.
While the other children were attending mass or prayer services at the church next door, the kids who opted out of the religious program had to wait in the gym, on the playground or in a computer lab until the school day began. The parents of those children banded together and hired a lawyer, arguing that the bussing arrangement indirectly favored religious students, and inconvenienced the district's other children, who weren't always fully supervised while they waited for school to start.
Those students won't have to wait anymore after the ACLU and the school district reached a settlement out of court, the AP reported.
“When government practices favor one particular religious group, the religious liberty of everyone is diminished,” Rebecca Glenberg, an ACLU senior staff attorney, told the AP.
In a meeting held mid-April, school officials expressed dismay at the prospect of a legal battle, and told the community that lawyers for the unnamed parents could file a federal lawsuit immediately if the district didn't settle, the local Effingham Daily News reported.
Other parents, whose children participated in the early morning religious services, said they weren't happy with the settlement.
"I don't know of any districts where the bus schedules will be controlled by one parent," Eric Pals said, per Effingham. "We have operated under God's Providence for 176 1/2 years. How do we know that a lawsuit isn't a test from God Himself?
"I think you have to draw a line in the sand," Pals said. "To hell with the ACLU. Where does this stop?"
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the ACLU will agree not to sue the school district as long as the district complies with the agreement -- meaning it sticks to a regular bus schedule that is not dictated by an optional prayer program. The agreement also establishes protocols for after-school programs, both religious and secular.
The Teutopolis school district would not be able to fight the ACLU in court, school board member Troy Ozenkoski told parents.
"I was as upset as the rest of you," he said. "But as a school board member, I have to remove my emotions. I don't want to be that guy who bankrupts the school district."
Attorney Glenberg said the settlement makes things fair for the kids who don't participate in the prayer services.
"Together," she said, "we have reached a resolution that protects students from being stigmatized or excluded simply because their family is not of the majority faith."