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Freedom From Religion Foundation calls for Tyler ISD to revoke subsidy made to faith-based summer camp

Tyler ISD, The Mentoring Alliance respond to demand
Published: Jun. 28, 2021 at 7:07 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 28, 2021 at 11:38 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - An East Texas school district is under fire from the Freedom From Religion Foundation over money provided to a faith-based summer camp.

The foundation is demanding Tyler ISD revoke a subsidy of $500,000 to The Mentoring Alliance for summer camp. The district intended for the money to help send high-risk students to the camps to play academic catch up, but the FRFF argues the district is in violation of the first amendment.

“We’d like the school district to revoke the money and ensure they’re no longer using public funds to fund religion,” said Chris Line, an attorney with the FFRF. The Wisconsin-based foundation is demanding Tyler ISD revoke a $500,000 subsidy that was approved by school board members at an April workshop.

According to the workshop agenda, the reimbursement was meant to help send 314 students to The Mentoring Alliance summer camps at no cost for 10 weeks, with students being selected by district staff and given the option to attend. The agenda item said, ”the schools targeted will be those with the highest risk loads.” Camps are held at four TISD campuses, according to the organization’s website.

Mentoring Alliance CEO Kevin East spoke ahead of the board’s vote on April 8.

He said, “This is saying for these 314 (students), they are VIP, no cost to them, so no barrier for them to come. So we can get the right kids getting ample instruction time for multiple weeks of the summer to try and help deliver them back in the fall, having not just slid, but caught up more. That is the goal this year.”

A Mentoring Alliance webpage explaining the summer camp states, “Mentoring and Bible study through our godly counselors are just one way we foster students’ spiritual and emotional development, providing a safe space for them to grow and building strong character.”

According to a news release, the FFRF was contacted by a “concerned district community member.” The foundation’s bylaws requires them to keep the person’s identity anonymous. The foundation argues that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from funding religious worship. Line pointed out the concerns in a letter sent to TISD Superintendent Dr. Marty Crawford.

“We drafted a letter to the school, because the school district needs to be neutral on religion,” said Line. “So a public school district can not be funding or helping subsidize a religious camp for students.”

On Monday, Tyler ISD responded to the foundation’s request in a statement to KLTV. A district spokesperson said, “We value our partnership with The Mentoring Alliance and their support of the district’s mission of successful students outcomes.”

KLTV also received the following statement from Suzette Farr, VP of Marketing & Community Engagement for The Mentoring Alliance:

“Mentoring Alliance values our partnership with Tyler ISD. It is our aim and priority to provide services to children, youth and families in this community that directly overlap with TISD’s mission of successful student outcomes and state guidelines and regulations.”

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