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Parents Challenge Pa. District's Service Requirement

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Four parents have filed a federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania's Bethlehem Area School District in an effort to stop a new mandatory community-service program in the district's two public high schools.

The parents believe the program is unconstitutional and want it to become voluntary, said their lawyer, Robert J. Magee.

"The school board has overstepped its bounds," Mr. Magee asserted last week.

The program, which is required for high-school graduation for all current 9th graders and subsequent classes, calls for students to spend 60 hours over four years in some type of community service, from reading to nursing-home patients to running a public-television auction.

The service, which counts for half a year's course credit, must be completed after school, on weekends, or during the summer, said William Burkhardt, principal of Liberty High School, one of the schools involved.

But the parents maintain that the program violates the Constitution's prohibition of slavery and "involuntary servitude" because the students are not being paid for mandated labor, Mr. Magee said.

The suit, filed Sept. 19 in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, also cites the alleged violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion.

The school is "attempting to impose a certain set of values," such as altruism, Mr. Magee said. That is akin to imposing a belief system or nontheistic religion, he said.

The plaintiffs are members of the 21-family Citizens Against Mandatory Services Inc., which is sponsoring the suit.

'A Fight of Principle'

The group's president, Paul Saunders, called the suit "a fight of principle" to "protect the Constitution from being eroded and chipped away at."

"The business of starting with defenseless children is the start of a long and dark road we don't want to start down," Mr. Saunders said. At the end of that road, he argued, "you are setting yourself up for government oppression."

But Mr. Burkhardt of Liberty High took issue with the parents' interpretation of the program.

The principal said it was "crazy" to compare the mandatory-service program to slavery, adding that he considered the program's per-week time commitment "infinitesimal."

And he said he views imparting values as a good thing. "Perhaps as public schools we have gotten too far away from that," he said.

One of the primary influences on the school board's decision last April to make the program mandatory, Mr. Burkhardt said, was a 1983 report issued by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. It recommended a new "Carnegie unit" in community service as an opportunity for young people "to reach beyond themselves."

Mr. Saunders said, however, that the Bethlehem schools were using such reasoning as a "sham" to cover up "the failure of education." Programs like community service are just "extra debris" that will not ensure a literate student body, he said.

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