Atheists Win Lawsuit Against Colorado School District That Promoted Christianity

The American Humanist Association has prevailed in a long-running case against a Colorado school district that “promoting and raising money for a Christian mission trip.”

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This all began in June of 2014, when the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent a letter to the Douglas County School District in Colorado detailing extensive evidence that officials at Highlands Ranch High School and Cougar Run Elementary School, in their capacities as District employees, were promoting Christianity and raising money for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ mission trip.

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The FCA made it clear why they were going to Guatemala: “… our group’s primary goal is to share the love and hope of Jesus.”

That’s fine. They’re allowed to do that. But make no mistake: This trip, by their own admission, was about proselytizing, first and foremost.

Because this was a trip to preach the Gospel, the schools could not support or raise money for it, even if the students had a secondary, more noble, goal of handing out toiletries and hygiene bags.

That’s why this flyer, which was given to all students and parents at the elementary school, was a big problem:

The flyer makes clear that the trip is sponsored both by the Christian student group (FCA) and the public school sixth grade class. The school made abundantly clear that it was supporting the mission trip in connection with the official sixth grade “Latin American social studies curriculum.”

The AHA also pointed out that an email sent by a school official to parents urging them to donate supplies and money included a bit about how sales of the school’s news publication would go toward the trip. They also noted a blog post written by another teacher (in that capacity) writing about the purpose of the trip: “The heart of this journey is to share, celebrate, and honor Christ.”

If school officials wanted to donate to charity, there were plenty of non-Christian ways to do it. It’s not like mission trips were the only option. And if individuals working at the school wanted to donate to the mission trip, they were allowed to do that, too — but only as private citizens, not educators employed by the District.

This should have been an easy problem to solve. All the District needed to do was issue a mea culpa, promise to end the illegal promotion of Christianity, and move on.

But they didn’t do that. In fact, they didn’t respond to the AHA at all.

That’s why, in October of 2014, the AHA filed a federal lawsuit against the District. Not only did the lawsuit document the problems listed above, it also included details about how the school raised money for a different Christian non-profit:

… the school district actively promoted and engaged in a program run by the evangelical Christian organization Samaritan’s Purse. Called Operation Christmas Child, the program uses gift packages with Christian messages to persuade children in developing nations to convert to Christianity. Samaritan’s Purse is led by evangelical minister Franklin Graham.

In other words, this problem was even more extensive than anyone thought. It was getting harder to tell whether this was a public school district or a local church.

The AHA asked the judge to rule that the District violated the Constitution, prevent the District from partnering with Christian groups in the future, and force the District to pay all the court costs and attorneys’ fees.

Both sides reached a settlement in April of 2015, at least with regard to Operation Christmas Child:

The settlement agreement, which declares SkyView’s Operation Christmas Child practices unconstitutional, permanently enjoins SkyView from sponsoring Samaritan’s Purse, Operation Christmas Child or any other religious charity. The school may not encourage student participation in Operation Christmas Child, and it may not offer students incentives for participating in religious programs. It is also prohibited from promoting religious charities on its website, in official school emails or through the distribution of flyers and other materials.

“Today’s settlement agreement vindicates the constitutional rights of all students and provides assurances that the school will comply with the Establishment Clause in the future,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

While that issue was resolved, with each plaintiff represented by the AHA receiving only $1 from the District since this was never about money, the other legal challenges were still in play.

However when a Colorado federal district court judge heard the case in 2016, the outcome was thoroughly disappointing. The judge said that the AHA’s plaintiffs did not have proper legal standing to bring the case.

Some of the plaintiffs didn’t show injury, the judge said, and the ones who said they were affected were no longer in those classes or didn’t attend the school.

To put it another way, the court punted, something that happens often in Establishment Clause cases involving atheists. The judge wasn’t saying the District didn’t break the law, only that it was an irrelevant matter since the people complaining had no right to sue over the matter.

The AHA eventually filed an appeal that April:

Zoes undeniably have standing for nominal damages. The court conceded Zoes had at least two direct, unwelcome contacts with school-sponsored Christian fundraising. Zoes were repeatedly solicited to donate money and items to support Christian organizations and their evangelical trip. Zoe-Son felt that his teachers and peers expected his participation. Under the controlling “direct, unwelcome contact” standard, this is beyond sufficient, especially because nominal damages must be awarded for a single constitutional violation.

Roes also have standing to challenge both District-wide, District-approved practices because they apply to their school and injure them in an ongoing manner. Roes’ likelihood of future injury is also particularly acute because Roe-Daughter will be a freshman at DCHS in 2017 where freshman homeroom participates in OCC. Roes are considering changing schools to avoid the religious practices.

Finally, all three families have municipal taxpayer standing because their District taxpayer dollars are expended on the unconstitutional activities. As explained below, to uphold the court’s ruling will abolish municipal taxpayer standing altogether.

Finally, in June of 2017, there was good news from the Appeals Court: The AHA was right in saying their clients had legal standing to bring the case. Therefore, it would be sent back to the lower court for a ruling on the merits.

That lower court finally ruled on the case today and — no surprise here — the judge sided with the AHA.

The decision, by Judge R. Brooke Jackson, finds that the school district violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by promoting and raising money for a Christian mission trip. The school district, through various activities that were incorporated into the ordinary school day of Christian and non-Christian students, raised funds and had students use class time to make crafts such as “salvation bracelets” that would be given to children in developing countries via a Christian mission trip.

“Religious minorities in public schools should never be faced with school-sponsored activity that promotes the majority religion,” said David Niose, AHA legal director. “The court’s ruling correctly finds that the district’s activities had the effect of promoting religion and excessively entangled the government with religion.”

“Our legal team fought long and hard for church-state separation in Douglas County, and we are glad to see that justice is prevailing,” said AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt. “The Constitution frowns upon the kind of religious activity that has been going on in schools there.”

In the weeks to come, both sides will get together to reach an agreement on how to proceed from here (as the judge required) with regards to attorney’s fees ad other costs.

It took a long time to achieve this victory, but the courts eventually realized the AHA and the family they represented had a legitimate point. No district should be using resources to promote Christianity. This one’s finally getting punished for it.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier. Top image via Shutterstock)

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