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Delaware school district pursues reckless policy

District sued for religious oppression gets in legal mess with insurer over a trifle

by, August 24, 2006

Links to the newly unsealed court documents appear directly below this report, as do links to other sources cited in the report.

Court documents unsealed this week show that the Indian River School District in southeastern Delaware gave the most trifling of reasons for defying the insurance company defending it in a lawsuit over its policies favoring Christianity and creating an atmosphere of religious intolerance.

Statements in the unsealed documents suggest that, in scuttling a proposed settlement which its own members negotiated, the district was intentionally rupturing relations with its insurer. That behavior is consistent with JewsOnFirst's report earlier this month that the Rutherford Institute, a conservative Christian legal organization, was encouraging district board members to pursue the lawsuit as a Supreme Court test, rather than settle it.

Two families sued the district in 2005 after board members refused their requests for policies that would foster religious tolerance. Instead, the district let itself become the focus hostile community organizing; board defenders expressed anti-semitism and threats to members of one of the families, the Dobriches, who subsequently fled the district. The other family in the lawsuit, the "Does," remain in the community.

District board balks at transfer for plaintiff children
One of the supposed sticking points to a settlement was bumping the Doe children to the head of the line for admission to arts schools. The Does requested the transfer because they feared their children would suffer retaliation, the News Journal reported on its website, Delaware Online.

The Indian River District board said in one of the unsealed filings:

This term of the proposed settlement agreement was unacceptable because it disregraded the standard procedures for admission to the District's arts schools, which had waiting lists and required auditions as spaces became available. In addition, this term would have resulted in the denial or delay of admission to two non-plaintiff students seeking admission to the District's arts schools.

Ironically, the families' lawsuit complains that among the special privileges the district gave students in the Bible club was going to the head of the lunch line.

Another of the board's deal-breakers was a requirement that it use the term "Winter Break" rather than "Christmas Break" in school calendars. Board members found this to be "unnecessarily restrictive" and "well beyond what was constitutionally required," according to the board's filing.

The strangest reason the board offered for rejecting the proposed settlement was a boiler-plate requirement that it commit not to "revoke or amend" the policies it undertook to adopt as part of the settlement (the equivalent of promising not to stop payment on a check -- or being expected to pay with a cashier's check).

"This provision would have unlawfully usurped the authority of this and future school boards from developing educational policy for the District," the board explained, lamely.

Settlement proposal rejected
The board voted to reject the settlement in February, even though its members participated in the negotiations, a lawyer for the plaintiff families told JewsOnFirst in an interview for our earlier report.

That rejection caused the insurance company that had been defending the district -- and would have paid out any settlement -- to stop its defense and sue the district. The documents unsealed this week come from that case, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company vs. Indian River School District, which Graphic Arts filed in April.

In its response to Graphic Arts' complaint, the district justifies its behavior, saying that the insurers' lawyer "did not meet with the Dobrich Defendants in advance of the mediation session or attempt to obtain settlement authority from the Dobrich Defendants regarding non-monetary settlement terms."

Graphic Arts quotes its position on authorization from the policies it issued the district. Those policies give the insurer the right to "investigate any allegation of a 'wrongful act' and settle any 'claim' or 'suit' that may result."

The insurance policies also oblige the district "to cooperate with us in the investigation or settlement of the 'claim' or defense against any 'suit,'" Graphic Arts says.

Oddly, the policy issue that the Rutherford Instititute appears to want to test in the Supreme Court -- prayer at school board meetings -- does not get explicit mention in the district's list of four policies in the proposed settlement that it rejected. (The Rutherford Institute did not respond to detailed questions relayed through its spokeswoman.)

In its response to Graphic Arts complaint, the district describes the policies: "a policy on religion within the school and classroom setting, prayer at commencement exercises and baccalaureate ceremonies, multi-step complaint procedures for violations of these policies and a policy relative to training programs."

More elaboration on prayer policy in Dobrich case filing
The board's prayer policy is explicitly mentioned in ample detail in the district's response to the Dobrich-Doe amended complaint, filed on July 12th. One of the attorneys who signed that document is Jason Gosselin. In a telephone interview for JewsOnFirst's previous report, Gosselin volunteered that he has worked as an affiliate of the Rutherford Institute, but is not currently. Nonetheless, as Gosselin noted in that interview, a Rutherford affiliate who worked briefly on the Dobrich case is the personal lawyer of one of the board members.

The News Journal reported this morning that, according to Gosselin, the district proposed a settlement to the two families last month.

Local support for Christian expression
Letters and comments to local papers suggest that the board has community support for its patently unconstitutional religious practices. Some local residents are circulating a petition that states "Please help us to make Del. the first state to bring prayer back in our schools," the Coastal Point weekly reported. (JewsOnFirst is co-sponsoring an open letter to the Indian River District board promoting religious tolerance. To add your signature, click here)

An early comment to today's News Journal/DelawareOnline report is typical of sentiment expressed to local media and reported in the Dobrich-Doe lawsuit as coming from the local talk radio station and elected representatives. The early morning poster wrote:

If that so called family doesn't like our CHRISTMAS BREAK mentioned then they should just go BACK to where they came from,, i REALLY wish i lived next too the morons,, i would erect a CHRISTMAS sign & face it right toward their house to read each & everyday,, GO BACK TO WHERE EVER YOU CAME FROM LOSERS. NOW I WILL SUE YOU FOR BEING MORONS Just who do these whatever they are,, THINK they are ???

Presumably these supporters of the unconstitutional establishment of religion should be just as enthusiastic about tax increases to finance a settlement for the Dobrich-Doe case or to settle other claims arising against the uninsured district.

Note on unsealed court documents. The documents immediately below are from Case No. 1:06-cv-00246-JJF in United States District Court for the District of Delaware, entitled Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company vs. Indian River School District et al. Please note that the court documents below are in PDF format.

Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company's complaint against Indian River School District

filed April 12, 2006

In this complaint the insurer asks the court to declare the district in breach of its insurance contract. Click here.

Indian River School District's answer to the insurer's complaint

filed June 13, 2006

In this document the district argues that the insurer's negotiated settlement proposal conflicted with the board's policy-making process. It took particular offense at a paragraph binding it to the policies adopted as part of the settlement. Click here.

Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company's answer to the school board's counterclaim

filed August 14, 2006

In this response to the Indian River School Board's demand that it resume defending it against the Dobrich and Doe families' lawsuit, Graphic Arts says it has no further obligation to the school district. It also says that, by failing to give "timely" notification that it might be sued for a "wrongful act," the district might have forfeited coverage. Please click here.

Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company's motion to file its complaint under seal

filed April 12, 2006

The request was made on the grounds that the insurers' lawyers had not yet ascertained who the defense attorneys would be. Please click here.

Indian River School District's answer to the Dobrich and Doe families' amendement complaint

Case No. 1:05-cv-00120-JJF Dobrich et al v. Walls et al, filed July 12, 2006

This answer by the school district is the most recent major document in the lawsuit filed by the Dobrich and Doe families against the Indian River School District. Click here.

Dobrich and Doe vs. Indian River School District
Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint

Caution. This PDF file is very large. Please click here.

Jewish family flees Delaware school district's aggressive Christianity

by, June 28, 2006

A large Delaware school district promoted Christianity so aggressively that a Jewish family felt it necessary to move to Wilmington, two hours away, because they feared retaliation for filing a lawsuit. The religion (if any) of a second family in the lawsuit is not known, because they're suing as Jane and John Doe; they also fear retaliation. Both families are asking relief from "state-sponsored religion."

Their suit describes how the graduation of the sole Jewish student in her class was ruined by a pastor asking in Jesus' name that the "Father" be with "one specific student...and guide her in the path that You have for her." It also describes how a crowd of adults at a school board meeting yelled at her little brother to take off his yarmulke and how his classmates called him "Christ killer." Please click here.

Follow-up: Bloggers make JewsOnFirst report on Delaware Jewish family a sensation
Anti-ACLU websites published Jewish family's address, phone

by, July 11, 2006

When major blogs picked up the story of the Dobrich family that fled the aggressive Christianity of Delaware's Indian River School Districts, readers sent expressions of support. The blogs "outed" a religious right anti-ACLU website that encouraged more persecution of the Dobrich family. Please click here.

Delaware district might be using families' lawsuit against it for Supreme Court test
Rutherford Institute encouraging risky school board strategy

by Jane Hunter,, July 11, 2006

JewsOnFirst breaks the story that the Indian River School District, urged on by the Rutherford Institute, a religious right legal group, might be planning to use the Dobrich and Doe families' lawsuit against it as a Supreme Court test case for school board prayer policies. The Rutherford Institute has been encouraging the Indian River School District board to make decisions favoring religious stances. Please click here

Petitions duel over prayer in school

By Jonathan Starkey, Coastal Point (southeastern Delaware), August 18, 2006

Since two families - one Jewish and another that remains anonymous - filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the Indian River School District early last year for alleged violations of their freedom of religion, local attention has been affixed to the issue.

In June, a national civil rights Web site called picked up the story and tossed the prayer suit under a national spotlight. Since then, bloggers across the country - and the New York Times - have run stories about this issue that seems to transcend local boundaries.

And now, some local and national opinions are clashing in two contrasting petitions. Continue

Alternative settlement in IR suit offered
Earlier agreement had been rejected by school board

By ESTEBAN PARRA, The News Journal, August 23, 2006

A day after a federal judge unsealed a lawsuit detailing reasons the Indian River School District rejected a settlement in a school prayer case, the district's attorney said it has drawn up an alternative settlement.

That new agreement was presented last month to the two families suing Indian River, according to Jason P. Gosselin, attorney for the school district. Continue.

Reader takes issue with comments in Point

Letter to editor, Alicia Beach Halverstadt, Coastal Point, September 8, 2006

As a Jewish child growing up in a Christian community, I can personally attest to the fact that it is very uncomfortable for a non-Christian child to be in a schoolroom during a recital of the Lordís Prayer.

Is it not obvious to all that comments like those of Ms. Walker of [a local restaurant] only increase religious/personal intolerance? Our nation was founded on tolerance. How sad that in recent years our values seem to be changing. I realize that people feel strongly about their religions, but the fact is that there is room in this world for many beliefs. Continue. (Look for this letter in the middle of the page.)

Intolerance should not be the lesson learned

Letter to Editor by Lee Guarna, Coastal Point, September 8, 2006


What an interesting word I have read throughout the local media in the past months.

Do those who are reporting that the Indian River School District is intolerant of others really understand what this community is all about? I say that those preaching this rhetoric need to take a look at how this community has been for many years, prior to their implantation. Continue. (Look for this letter in the middle of the page.)

Letter-writer furthers discrimination problem

Letter to Editor by Stuart Snyder, Coastal Point, September 8, 2006

I usually read your paper while in your distribution area. I wonder why you continually publish Mr. Valentiís weekly [letter]. He seems obsessed with his consistent identification of the Dobrich familyís religion, as if heís on his own jihad. I am curious if your paper actually attempts to practice non-biased publishing.

Over a year ago, I read of the suit involving the Dobrich family and the Indian River School District in your paper. It happened to be in an edition that featured the anniversary of the desegregation of Delaware schools. There was a lengthy article with pictures with an historical perspective of discrimination in our schools.

When I read of the incidents involving the Dobrich family and their treatment in the schools, I actually thought it was a related article to the one I read about discrimination. I thought it was another story of the Indian River School District back in the 1950ís. I had to read it twice to believe that this incident was current.

Mr. Valentiís claims regarding the Indian River School District suit supported by the ACLU are echoing of the Christian majority being the victims of the suit. The taxpayers who fund the district are the true victims of the Board itself. Continue. (Look for this letter in the middle of the page.)

Suing for having prayer in school

Letter from Charles N. Valenti, Daily Times, August 23, 2006

A recent article in the New York Times went out of its way to report on the lawsuit that a Delawarean is pressing against the Indian River School District for allegedly allowing a prayer during a high school graduation which included her daughter while she and her family attended. She professed to be so offended by the mention of Jesus Christ during the prayer of benediction on the students that she and the ACLU are seeking a settlement of reputed six figures for the alleged offense.

The article portrays a Mrs. Dobrich as someone who has been victimized, whereas the truth seems to be the opposite. A study of the facts surrounding that case shows that there was no intentional offense against her nor was any religious thing forced upon her. She just happened to be present at a public gathering. It was a case of a person who refused to allow others the privilege of religious expression in her presence. Continue

Indian River school board doesn't grasp the difference
Letter to the Editor by Nancy D. Dean, responding to letter from Charles Valenti

DelawareOnLine.Com, News-Journal, September 10, 2006.

A version of Valenti's letter was also published by the News-Journal, which subsequently published Dean's response. She wrote: "A recent letter attempted to characterize the Indian River School District as a generous hostess, saying that students and families of Jewish, Islamic or any other religion should happily accept the offerings of Christian prayers with good grace. That analogy is a false premise.

"If Indian River were a private Christian school, then it would have the right to offer Christian prayers and any other religious ritual it desired and expect them to be accepted. But this is a public school. Even if the majority of students come from Christian backgrounds, the school is for all the people, for the study of subjects outside the bounds of any one religion. .Click to continue reading Dean's letter, (half-way down the page.)