Feds investigate Baraboo school; Complaint claims discriminatory policy

Feds investigate Baraboo school; Complaint claims discriminatory policy

St. John’s Lutheran School in Baraboo is under federal investigation following a complaint over its policy toward LGBT students, officials confirmed Thursday.

At issue is the fact that St. John’s receives federal dollars. The school gets funding for programs for school lunches, busing and through the No Child Left Behind Program.

The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that advocates for atheists and the separation of church and state, filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction May 10 after it received a letter school principal Craig Breitkreutz sent to parents in February, making them aware of changes for the upcoming school year. The DPI forwarded the complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch program.

In the letter, Breitkreutz asked parents to sign an agreement that they and their child will support and obey the school’s policy and that any violation could result in removal from the school. Breitkreuz said this protects the school’s religious beliefs as well as its “ability to dismiss children that are not following (its) Christian faith.”

In the letter, Breitkreutz said the school’s federal funding complicates matters, as the acceptance of federal funds makes St. John’s a Title IX school. He said the Office of Civil Rights, which protects the admittance of students at Title IX schools, looks for any cases of discrimination.

“The Office of Civil Rights now also protects discrimination against sexual preference and gender identification,” the letter states. “If we cannot legally refuse students who are struggling with homosexuality or gender identification, we must maintain our right to hold to the truths of God’s Word.”

According to the letter, the school maintains the right to “discipline and dismiss” students who “(choose) an outwardly sinful lifestyle.”

The letter also states: “(U)nfortunately, we must know the gender of your child. Although this last item should never be an issue, we must be aware to protect our religious freedom.”

Patrick Elliott, an FFRF attorney, said while religious schools are generally allowed to implement whatever policies they see fit according to their religious practices, federal funds should not be used to support these institutions.

“We grant religious organizations a very wide latitude to conduct their affairs how they want and many of them are discriminatory,” Elliott said. “Many of us don’t appreciate that and don’t join those organizations. But when they are participating in certain federal programs, we can say, ‘You can’t participate in this federal program if you’re not going to provide your services to everyone.'”

Elliott said St. John’s should follow federal rules if it intends to take federal money.

“Just as if a school wasn’t going to admit people of a certain race, we would agree that, federally, that school shouldn’t participate in those types of funding programs,” he said. “As a participant in that program, it has to follow the law, or it could certainly become a non-participant and conduct itself without the federal funds.”

Elliott said its complaint over the school’s policy brings up a bigger issue over whether federal funds should go to religious schools in the first place. Elliott said his organization believes parochial and other private schools shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers.

“Private schools, especially schools that charge tuition, should be on their own and should fund themselves,” Elliott said.

Breitkreutz declined to comment on the matter Thursday afternoon.

News 3 also reached out to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the conservative Lutheran denomination the school is affiliated with. A WELS spokesperson did not return our phone call as of Thursday afternoon.

USDA spokesperson Amanda Heitkamp confirmed Thursday the agency is investigating the complaint.

“We are firmly committed to ensuring federal protections against discrimination with respect to all of our programs and activities,” Heitkamp said in a statement.

A day later, the Director of WELS Commission on Lutheran Schools, Jim Rademan released this statement to News 3: 

“We recently became aware of media reports of a complaint to the United States Department of Agriculture involving St. John’s Lutheran School in Baraboo, Wisc. Our understanding is that the school has not received any notice of a complaint from the government.  The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) is not directly involved in this matter but is gathering information regarding the reported complaint and may respond, if warranted, at a later date. 

All WELS schools are encouraged to adopt a code of conduct, grounded in the statement of faith, which establishes parameters for acceptable behavior. WELS schools create their own policies regarding admission and discipline.  It is expected that WELS organizations’ reflect our synod’s doctrine and biblical principles in their teaching.”