Christian educational ministry wins religious liberty victory 8 years after filing suit

A ministry that teaches children Christian values in released-time programs during school hours but off school grounds has won in court in a case first filed in 2015.

Joy El Ministries was…

A ministry that teaches children Christian values in released-time programs during school hours but off school grounds has won in court in a case first filed in 2015.

Joy El Ministries was prevented by the Pennsylvania State Police and PennDOT from transporting kids to and from their religious lessons because the vehicles didn’t comply with state laws regarding school buses.

The law firm that represented Joy El said the prohibition on transporting the kids scuttled a longstanding policy in Pennsylvania to allow such transport by organizations running “released time” programs, in which public school students are voluntarily released from school, with parental approval, to receive religious education during the school day. 

Previously, such “released time” transportation was allowed by the state, because, unlike school buses, the Joy El vehicles did not pick up or discharge passengers on roadways, according to the Independence Law Center, which represented Joy El.  

All of that changed in 2015 when a state patrolman made an “impromptu” vehicle inspection of a Joy El vehicle in a school parking lot, according to a newspaper in nearby Hagerstown, Maryland. 

The officer issued warnings that the vehicles were not painted “National School Bus Yellow,” were identified as being owned by Joy El and did not have the words “School Bus” painted on them, reported the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.  

Consequently, students were not allowed to board the vehicles. 

Photos supplied by Joy El to the newspaper show the vehicles were, in fact, painted yellow, in the same manner customary to all school buses.  

What’s more, state law prevents Joy El from calling their vehicles “school buses” or from providing flashing lights like school buses normally have, said the attorneys for the ministry.   

Additionally, Pennsylvania state police took the added step of contacting three separate school districts to warn them about the Joy El vehicles, according to the lawsuit filed by Joy El, said the Herald-Mail. 

Joy El filed the suit under its legal name, CBM Ministries of South Central Pennsylvania, Inc.(CBM), arguing the state violated the group’s First Amendment rights, as well as the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act. 

In a ruling Monday, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled 4-3 in favor of Joy El.

The court said that the vehicles in question were not in fact school buses, noting that the “plain language” of Pennsylvania’s statutes make the laws the state was trying to enforce inapplicable in the case.  

“We conclude that CBM is not a ‘school’ and its vehicles are not ‘multifunction school activity buses’ as defined by [Pennsylvania] DOT’s regulations,” wrote Commonwealth Judge Ellen Ceisler in the majority opinion. “We further conclude that CBM’s vehicles are exempt from DOT’s school bus regulations because they are neither owned by nor under contract with a public or private school, as required by DOT’s enabling statute.”  

The case was long-delayed because Pennsylvania’s Attorney General tried to remove the case to federal district court, arguing that the issues largely involved the U.S. Constitution. But the state’s actions clearly reveal that this wasn’t just a rogue policeman intent on arbitrarily enforcing the law. 

It was a government assault on religious freedom, said the lawsuit.    

“This is a great day for Joy El Ministries and the students they serve in its released time program,” said Randall Wenger of the Independence Law Center in a statement. “Ministries should be free from arbitrary imposition of inapplicable state laws, and this case will enhance Joy El’s ability to serve school students. It’s a great outcome for a wonderful ministry.” 

Aaron Ziebarth, CEO of Joy El, said that he was thrilled by the decision of the court and grateful for all the prayers of support the ministry received during the litigation, most especially because now they can concentrate on its ministry work. 

“Our volunteers at Joy El Ministries have invested countless hours with the school-aged children we serve — sharing the gospel of Christ’s love,” said Ziebarth.