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Church-State Fight Erupts in Ill. Town

November 15, 2003

MARION, Ill. (AP) _ Church and state have never been far apart in this southern Illinois town, where teachers at public schools regularly pass out flyers advertising Christian youth groups.

So few paid much attention when school officials took a Texas-based evangelist up on his offer to hold secular assemblies next week on the dangers of drugs and alcohol _ until now.

On Friday, parent Robert Marsh asked a judge to cancel the Ronnie Hill Ministries assemblies planned for Monday and Tuesday, claiming they violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

The case was bumped to federal court and is expected to be heard on Monday.

Marsh, who has a fourth-grader in Marion schools, claims the programs are part of a plan to get students to attend events evangelist Ronnie Hill is holding at nearby Cornerstone Community Church while he is in town.

Others believe the assemblies simply go too far.

``In Marion, like the rest of the U.S., everyone assumes everyone else is Christian,″ said resident Fred Duckhorn.

``But what we’re talking about is the separation of church and state, and religion doesn’t belong in the public schools,″ he said.

School officials _ including the school board president, who attends Cornerstone _ say the programs are acceptable because Hill pledges not to mention God.

And many in this town _ where the busiest Wal-Mart empties during the Sunday church hour _ say they’re not bothered by the visit.

``I see a place for religion in society,″ said resident Phil Keller, a big, bearded 60-year-old, as he sipped his morning coffee recently at the downtown McDonald’s.

``Is it right to preach a sermon in school? No. But drugs are a problem, and kids need to hear that message from everyone.″

Marsh points to the ``Ronnie Hill Ministries Crusade Preparation Manual″ as proof the programs are aimed at boosting attendance at the church services. A copy of the book was obtained by The Associated Press.

Included in the 41-pages, are instructions to ``try to set up a school assembly″ to be held on the same days as Hill’s nightly services.

Marion school board member Robert Barnett, who attended Friday’s hearing in a packed courtroom, said the board never intended to recruit for any religion.

Hill, who says he has done the assemblies at hundreds of schools nationwide without a court challenge, said his drug and alcohol programs aren’t connected to the church crusade.

___

On the Net:

Ronnie Hill’s Web site: http://www.ronniehill.com/

Marion school district: http://www.marion.wilmsn.k12.il.us/

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