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Another York County school retains Christian law firm known for suing other districts

Independence Law Center will consult with Dover School District on policies and “provide legal representation for student records, athletics, and privacy policies”

  • Jordan Wilkie/WITF
Dover Area School District sits for a board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

 Screenshot from Dover Area School District YouTube channel.

Dover Area School District sits for a board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

The Dover Area School District is retaining the Independence Law Center, which has advised other districts on policies related to transgender students and educational materials. 

The ACLU has opposed ILC-backed policies as discriminatory against transgender students.

The Harrisburg-based firm is offering its services free of charge to the district. The contract allows ILC to advise the district on policy, including those on student athletics, records and privacy, and to act as the district’s legal representative. 

Board chair David Conley read a prepared statement before the board voted 7-2 on Tuesday to approve the contract. He read a similar statement about the group at the previous week’s planning meeting. 

“The main objective in creating this agreement is to seek the wisest counsel possible to assist us in the evaluation and formulation of district policies,” Conley said. 

There was no board discussion at either meeting. The district is already represented by Benjamin Pratt of Saxton and Stump.  

Two district parents spoke against retaining ILC during public comments and said the process lacked transparency. Teri Marlowe, who has taught in the district for 19 years, said she was speaking publicly despite fears about professional repercussions.

“What would their role be to the district? What would they be doing? I suggest that the board wait to vote on this agenda item until they can answer these questions in public and hear the public’s reaction to this,” Marlowe said.

Marlowe declined to be interviewed outside of public comments, saying, “I like my job.” 

District policy “acknowledges the right of administrative, professional and support employees as citizens in a democratic society to speak out on issues of public concern,” with some limitations when speaking about district policy. 

This is not the district’s first interaction with Randy Wenger, the head lawyer for the ILC. Twenty years ago, Wenger was a lawyer for the Foundation for Thought and Ethics. The district used the foundation’s materials to teach intelligent design, a religious belief used as a non-scientific alternative to evolution for describing how life on Earth came to be. 

In that case, parents sued the school district, claiming the policy introduced religion into biology curriculum in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s clause prohibiting the government from making laws that respect an establishment of religion. U.S. District Court Judge John Jones III, appointed by George W. Bush, ruled against the district. 

The case garnered national press and popular culture attention. After the decision, Dover voters removed the members who endorsed teaching intelligent design from the board. 

In public comments at Tuesday’s meeting, parent Kara Hetrick said if the district wanted to make positive change, it “must not be distracted by the noise from outside groups.”  

“Mr. Wenger did not have Dover families’ interest in mind 20 years ago, and he doesn’t appear to now, either,” Hetrick said.

None of the seven speakers in public comments at the last two board meetings spoke in favor of the contract. 

Several districts in central Pennsylvania have entered into similar contracts with ILC, including Central York, and South Western; and Eastern Lancaster County and Hempfield in Lancaster County. Northern York County School District is also considering a retainer, based on their meeting agenda this week. 

Within a week of entering into the contract, South Western is floating new restrictions on classroom books, according to The York Dispatch. After entering into the contract in 2019, Elanco proposed a privacy policy in response to public outcry over a male transgender student’s request to use the boy’s bathroom. The policy drew public outcry, attention from the ACLU, and included a proposed $1 million renovation to the high school locker rooms. Dover school district is projected to face an over $3 million budget shortfall in the next financial year.

Under a separate agenda item at Tuesday’s meeting Assistant Superintendent Catherine Houck told the board teachers withheld two books from a prepackaged elementary reading curriculum. 

“We want to be very careful that we are putting our own personal opinions aside and that we are not presenting students with topics that we believe parents may have differences of opinion on,” Houck said.  

The books were about climate change, mentioning activist Greta Thunberg, and two dads adopting an orphaned child, Houck said. 

Board member Rob McKinney said he appreciated the way Houck was “keeping an eye out on the books.” 

“It’s not book banning, it’s just age appropriate material, and that’s what we want in our schools,” he said.

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