Agency Misapplied Law to Ground Private Ministry’s Buses

Franklin County, Pennsylvania – An organization that for 50 years has been providing free, once-a-week religious education for students off school premises has had its fleet of buses grounded by the State Police because its buses are not “National School Bus Yellow” and because of other misapplications of state law. The ministry filed a legal challenge in state court today to get its buses moving again.

Joy El Camps & RetreatsJoy El’s buses meet all safety requirements of non-school-owned buses, but police grounded them because they did not meet the requirements of school-owned school buses designed to pick up and drop off children along the road in front of their homes—such as a specific type of yellow paint, the words “School Students,” and a swinging stop sign for crossing a street. In fact, state police previously told Joy El that its buses couldn’t have certain school bus features or purport to be school buses.

“The statute governing school buses clearly states that these requirements should only apply to buses which are ‘owned by or under contract to the school district,’” said David Crossett, the Smith Law attorney representing Joy El. “Under the Pennsylvania State Police’s logic, even families with large passenger vans should have to paint ‘School Students’ on the front and back and put a blinking light on top.”

At the request of Joy El, the Smith Law Group and the Independence Law Center sought to resolve the situation short of litigation, but were ultimately forced to file the suit CBM Ministries of South Central Pennsylvania v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. Alliance Defending Freedom is also providing legal assistance with this case.

Despite earlier guidance, police now insist that any vehicle capable of carrying 11 or more students must be painted “school bus” yellow and meet a host of other expensive requirements, including the swinging stop sign on the side of the bus, decals on the roof, and interior lighting down the aisles.

“A caring society passes laws to maintain safety, particularly the safety of children. The existing laws for non-school buses have done that very well for all of this ministry’s 50 years,” said Randall Wenger, attorney for the Independence Law Center in Harrisburg. “The government is now going too far in misapplying laws that were only intended for school buses.”

Over the course of nearly 50 years of busing, Joy El’s vehicles have never had an accident in Pennsylvania.

“Safety has always been a top priority for us,” said Aaron Ziebarth, executive director of Joy El. “We want to continue providing free transportation for students to released-time religious programs, but if the state police prevail in this lawsuit, the financial burden of making changes to our fleet of buses will simply be too much.”

“The irony of this situation is that Joy El was specifically told to remove their stop signs and other trappings of school buses several years ago because their vehicles are not school buses,” Crossett explained. “We are optimistic that we will prevail because the statute is so clear. Joy El’s vehicles are not school buses and should not be treated as such.”

The Smith Law Group is a full-service law firm in Berks County that serves central Pennsylvania.

The Independence Law Center is a pro bono law firm affilated with the Pennsylvania Family Institute and focused on advancing our religious freedoms. Your financial support sustains this work and helps us provide assistance to individuals and ministries like Joy El. You can partner with us by making a secure online donation today.