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Illinois School in Church-State Fight

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.

He points to the ``Ronnie Hill Ministries Crusade Preparation Manual″ as proof the programs are aimed at boosting attendance at the church services.

Included in the manual’s 41-pages, obtained by The Associated Press, are instructions to ``try to set up a school assembly″ to be held on the same days as Hill’s nightly services, preferably at large schools ``that would bring in more students to the crusade.″

The Rev. Eddie Pullen, Cornerstone’s pastor, said that on the days of the assemblies, young Cornerstone members would give their classmates free tickets to pizza parties to be held on the same nights before teen-centered worship services. ``We want the children to stay and hear a message that will change their lives,″ he said.

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.

But others say the connection is still implied.

``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.″

School officials say the programs are acceptable because Hill pledges not to mention God during the assemblies.

And many in this town of 15,000, where stores empty during the Sunday church hour, say they’re not bothered by the visit.

``I see a place for religion in society,″ resident Phil Keller, 60, said as he sipped coffee at 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.″

School Board President Todd Goodman, a Cornerstone member, was traveling Friday and not available to comment, said his assistant, Brandi Watson.

Hill said he isn’t changing his plans.

``I’m looking forward to coming,″ he said from his office in Fort Worth, Texas.


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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