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Public School Created for Protestant Sect Assailed

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A public school established by a Minnesota district at the request of a Protestant religious sect is raising the hackles of advocates of strict church-state separation.

The Kittson Central school district in far northwestern Minnesota entered an agreement this summer with residents of the community of St. Vincent for a one-room school to serve as many as 22 students.

Critics contend the school was established for the sole benefit of local members of the Plymouth Brethren, a Christian denomination that emphasizes family values and some detachment from the modern world.

District officials and members of the sect say, however, that the school meets state laws and constitutional requirements. They say the school is open to any student, even those who are not members of the religious group.

Plymouth Brethren members in St. Vincent have said concern about the 22-mile distance to the nearest public school was one reason they sought a school in their community. But they also oppose sex education, the use of television and computers in classrooms, and the assignment of works of fiction because such activities run counter to their beliefs.

A letter from several members of the religious sect, sent to the superintendent of the Kittson district in April, lists "what we would desire to be available, and what should be omitted, in a school curriculum for our children."

The letter says that "books of fiction are the product of man's mind," and that "some contain much that is defiling--blasphemy, vile language, fornication as a way of life--this we refuse."

Computers, the letter states, "draw our minds away from dependence on God. They do not think according to moral values, as a Christian must do."

Parallel to Kiryas Joel?

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Maryland-based advocacy group, has written to Kittson district officials and the Minnesota commissioner of education, arguing that the arrangement is an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

The group contends the arrangement is similar to the school district created by New York State for a community of Hasidic Jews that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this year in Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet. (See Education Week, July 13, 1994.)

"It's somewhat surprising, coming on the heels of the Supreme Court's decision in Kiryas Joel, to see a school district enter an agreement with a religious group to operate a public school according to the dictates of that group," said Steven K. Green, the legal director of Americans United. "There's no doubt that this arrangement is unconstitutional."

Mr. Green said that, as of last week, neither Bruce Jensen, the superintendent of the Kittson district, nor state education department officials had responded to his letters. Americans United is considering a lawsuit opposing the agreement.

Bob Wedl, the assistant commissioner of education in Minnesota, said his department was consulting with the state attorney general's office to determine the school's legality.

Religious Symbols Banned

The school district signed the agreement for the one-room school in St. Vincent with Pembina-St. Vincent Meeting Rooms Inc., a nonprofit organization that donated the building. Pembina is a nearby town in North Dakota from which, under the two states' policy of reciprocity, several Plymouth Brethren children attend the St. Vincent school.

The agreement states that if enrollment falls below 15 students, the group will reimburse the district for some of the school's operating costs.

Though the Plymouth Brethren have expressed their concerns about the curriculum, the agreement gives the school district control over textbooks and materials for the school. The agreement also bans religious symbols and artifacts from the school.

"The curriculum offered at that school campus is the same curriculum taught throughout the school district," said Roger Malm, the lawyer for the Kittson Central district.

"There are computers available up there. Whether they are used or not" is up to parents, he added.

Lloyd Symington, a retired farmer and a member of the Plymouth Brethren who has four grandchildren in the school, said the distance factor was the main issue in requesting the school.

"This is a totally legal public school," he said. "It's not restricted just to our children."

Mr. Symington said the school's sole teacher likely will offer sex education to students, but Plymouth Brethren parents would simply opt out of such instruction for their children.

Complaint From North Dakota

Mr. Green said Americans United received complaints from residents of Pembina, whose school district stands to lose state funding for several children who are attending the St. Vincent school.

In his letter to the state commissioner, he noted the Supreme Court's disapproval of interdistrict transfers into the Kiryas Joel school district that appeared to be based on religion rather than geography.

"The fact that Brethren children from North Dakota will attend the new school supports the conclusion that the school is being established for religious reasons," Mr. Green wrote.

He also charged that the district is indeed modifying the school's curriculum and operations to accommodate the beliefs of the Plymouth Brethren.

"The school district sees this as a solution to appease this group that is making demands on the public school curriculum," he said.

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