Last June, the American Humanist Association’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.
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.” Which is 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 couldn’t support or raise money for those groups, 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 an email sent by a school official to parents urging them to donate supplies and money, which 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 are plenty of non-Christian ways to do it. It’s not like mission trips are the only option. And if individuals working at the school wanted to donate to the mission trip, they were allowed to do that — but only as private citizens, not educators employed by the district.
This should have been an easy problem to solve. The district would just issue a mea culpa, promise to end the illegal promotions 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, last October, 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 one school, SkyView Academy, raised money for a 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.
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 is finally settled — each plaintiff represented by the AHA will only receive $1 from the District since this was never about money — the other legal challenges are still in play and have yet to be decided.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)