Tuesday, January 29, 2008

California School Board Accepts Community Service Hours Earned at Church

The Long Beach District School Board has approved a settlement agreement with Christopher Rand, a high school student who was denied credit for community service hours he completed at his church. Chris has now received full credit for the hours. The district administration also rewrote its community service learning policy to allow students to complete mandatory community service hours at either secular or religious organizations, including churches, on the same terms.

In October 2007, Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit against the district because Chris’s school refused to grant credit for more than 70 hours of community service, solely because it was performed at Long Beach Alliance Church. He interacted with the children in the church’s programs, answered questions, assisted with crafts and art projects, supervised activity time to help ensure safety, and performed other duties.

After Chris submitted the required documentation regarding his volunteer service, he was denied credit because the district’s prior community service learning policy stated, “Service to your religious community does not count.” If Christopher had given the same service in a secular school or in a nonreligious childcare program, his service would have been credited. Shortly after Liberty Counsel filed suit, the district agreed to award Chris credit for the full 72.5 hours that had previously been rejected.

In addition to giving Chris credit for his community service, the district accepted input from Liberty Counsel in revising its policy to comply with the First Amendment. Under the new policy, religious organizations will receive the same treatment as other nonprofit organizations in terms of the types of community service work that is permitted. Students are expressly allowed to supervise and assist with leading organized children’s activities, such as those performed by Chris. The district also agreed to pay attorney’s fees and costs to Liberty Counsel.

When community service is a graduation requirement, schools cannot limit service to secular venues. Discrimination against performing community service for religious organizations violates the First Amendment and offends the rich religious heritage that made this country great.