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Ties with new center contested
Anti-religion group questions arrangement
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A Wisconsin-based anti-religion group has challenged the constitutionality of the Dawson County school system accepting faith-based course credits from a new local Christian learning center.

In a letter dated Jan. 9, the Freedom from Religion Foundation demands that the school board sever its ties with Dawson County Christian Learning Center.

The foundation, which calls itself "a national watchdog" that promotes the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics and skeptics), according to its Web site. Of the group's reported 19,000 members nationwide, 360 are said to live in Georgia.

According to the letter, a concerned Dawson County High School student contacted the foundation, which in turn made open records requests and examined the school system's documents relating to the proposed Christian education courses.

"Those records demonstrate an unconstitutional relationship between Dawson County Schools and an evangelical religious institution," wrote Patrick Elliott, foundation staff attorney.

In addition to constitutionality, Elliott outlined the center's lack of accreditation, an inapplicable school board policy and e-mails between Superintendent Keith Porter and learning center board members, which reportedly show "support for the evangelical Christian classes" as cause for the foundation's involvement.

Brooke Anderson, chairman of the board of directors for the learning center in Dawsonville, was both surprised and bothered by the demands, which he contends are half-truths and misleading.

"The letter says the school board should immediately cease its ties to the CLC, but there are no ties. There's no partnership. There's no agreement. None of that exists," he said.

"When we started this, we wanted to reach out to the schools to get information and provide information. We reached out to them in an informative manner, but doing an investigation and taking action is two different things."

The center's board announced in October that biblical-based courses soon would be available for high school students to take toward elective credit.

Anderson said the plan is to have the classes, which are based on scripture principles and taught free of charge at Dawsonville Baptist Church, available in the fall.

Ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952, released time religious education is completely funded by donations, without the use of tax dollars.

"The CLC is independent of the school system," Anderson said. "We're not using school facilities. We're not using school money. We're not using any taxpayer dollars at all. We're not using school teachers or facilities or school transportation."

But according to the foundation, "Granting special treatment to attend select evangelical Christian education courses violates the Constitution and entangles the school district in a matter that is personal to many Dawson County families."

The letter, which asks the school district to "remain neutral on matters of religion," goes on to say government breaches that duty when it "becomes involved in granting approval to certain religions or religious coursework."

School Superintendent Keith Porter agrees that misinformation has caused much of the confusion outlined in the letter.

"The letter requests that we sever ties with the DC CLC, but in actuality there are no ties or agreements in place," he said. "It is impossible for me to respond to the charge of an unconstitutional relationship between the school system and the DC CLC when no agreement exists.

"The Dawson County school system has done nothing wrong in this situation. The board of education has not been presented with any proposals for approval and no actions have been taken."

Porter went on to say the school district has not scheduled students for the center, contrary to the foundation's claim.

"The letter indicates that we have scheduled students for the DC CLC. We have not scheduled students on behalf of the DC CLC," he said.

As for the foundation's accreditation claim, Porter said school systems are required to follow the Georgia Board of Education's guidelines on the matter.

"This rule indicates that all public schools in Georgia shall accept credits from accredited schools. It provides no flexibility in this matter," he said. "We have no control over the accreditation process for other schools or organizations, as they must complete the process themselves. Our board does not vote on which courses are acceptable."

Once Dawson County Christian Learning Center becomes accredited, the school system will accept credits based on the guidelines provided by the state, according to Porter.

"Once a transcript is received, then we determine whether the provider is accredited and the high school accepts or denies the credit based on this determination," he said.

Anderson noted the learning center will apply for accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools within the next six months and will be offering classes during the provisional certification process.

He also said the foundation has not been in contact with anyone directly involved with the center.