In my school district, if student get expelled or suspended for an extended period of time, they don’t just stay home and do nothing. We have an “alternative” school they must attend so that they can earn the credits they need to graduate.
In Jefferson County, Tennessee, the school district does something similar. But about 10 years ago, the county’s Board of School Commissioners decided they could save money by shutting down their own alternative school and outsourcing the work to Kingswood School, a local non-profit.
Just one problem: Kingswood is a Christian school.
Kingswood is a non-profit coed residential group care home for children and youth between ages 5 and 18. It provides to displaced children a Christian home-like environment where every effort is made to develop in each child a personal faith in God, in himself, and in his fellowman.
Two of the old alternative school’s employees, who were basically displaced by the district’s move to Kingswood, ended up suing the school district, saying that the district was violating the Establishment Clause.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Phillips ruled in their favor: The school was not respecting church/state separation, he wrote in his decision (PDF):
The average student that attended Kingswood would arrive on campus and see a church within the grounds. She would then see an intake staff member who was also an ordained minister. After intake, the student would attend secular classes, but would take home report cards branded with Christian language and symbols. In order to progress though the level system, she would need to have her parents routinely sign and return Family Feedback Forms that also contained bible verses. If she visited Kingswood’s website, she would be greeted by the phrases “Christian environment” and “Christian education” among others. Benefactors would receive fundraising correspondence that contained Christian references and iconography, and assemblies would be held in the campus church.
Any of these facts, taken alone, might not rise to the level of a constitutional violation; however, when considered together and as applied to relevant case law, the facts plainly establish that Kingswood is a religious institution — a fine institution — but an institution that should have never sought to operate a public alternative school as part of its ministry.
The appearance of governmental endorsement of the Christian faith is too pronounced and non-believers, or students of a different faith, would likely feel divorced from Kingswood, a well-intentioned, but overtly-Christian school.
Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a simple suggestion for the district:
The judge is right. It looks like Kingswood does some good work with young people. But the school does it within the context of the Christian faith. That makes it an inappropriate partner for a public school system.
Rather than ship kids off to a Christian academy, perhaps educators in Jefferson County should reopen the alternative school or design a new program that serves all young people in need, no matter what they think about God and religion.
There’s no reason a school district should be fixing their budget by tossing the Constitution out the window. This was the right decision and the judge made it incredibly clear that no reasonable person could look at Kingswood and call it anything but a Christian school.
The two employees who sued the district will each get one year’s worth of lost wages as well as attorney’s fees.
(via Religion Clause)