Legislation designed to end an eight-year church-state school controversy in Nebraska goes into effect this month. But the compromise bill, passed by the Nebraska legislature in April, won’t be tested at least until late summer when fundamentalist schools throughout the state reopen their doors.

Believing that education is an extension of ministry, fundamentalists have maintained the state has no right to require the certification of teachers and schools (CT, Feb. 17, p. 32). The bill passed in April waives the requirements for teacher certification and school accreditation.

The state’s department of education, under the new legislation, could still require certain credentials of fundamentalist school teachers. Parents might be asked to report the results of nationally standardized competency tests for teachers and achievement tests for students. Fundamentalists had hoped to limit that process to student testing.

Nearly all those operating church-schools in Nebraska, including Pastor Everett Sileven of Faith Baptist Church in Louisville, are willing to give the compromise a try. Whether it succeeds, they say, depends on how the vaguely-worded bill is applied.

One thing for certain is that the days of law enforcement officials moving to shut down church-operated schools are over. Now, if the state deems that a school does not measure up, the parents of the students—not the teachers and administrators—face prosecution for violating truancy laws.

Although the new bill may bridge the impasse, some Nebraska pastors still face the consequences of illegal actions they took prior to the compromise. Robert Gelsthorpe and his North Platte Baptist Church were fined for each day his church’s school operated illegally. He and his church now owe $40,000.

The county attorney has moved to repossess Gelsthorpe’s house and ordered his church to pay 15 percent of Gelsthorpe’s salary to the state. Payment has been delayed pending an appeal.

Sileven, who last year fled Nebraska after a warrant was issued for his arrest, returned shortly after the passage of the compromise bill. He was sentenced to an eight-month jail term and forbidden to write for publication while in jail.

The Nebraska Civil Liberties Union has offered Sileven legal assistance. The pastor was released last month on $10,000 bond, and the Nebraska Supreme Court is looking into the matter.

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