There are plenty of legal ways Christian students can promote their views in public schools. They can start a club. They can gather around the flagpole. They can host voluntary Bible studies. They can talk to their friends about Jesus during lunch (at least until they run out of friends to annoy).
Basically, it’s all good as long as teachers and administrators don’t get involved in any substantive way in order to avoid coercion.
That’s why a lawsuit filed by Robert Basevitz against the Fremont RE-2 School District in Colorado is so important, because it documents all sorts of instances in which District officials crossed the line and treated the local high school as an extension of a local church.
Basevitz was actually an employee at Florence High School in the District. While he’s primarily a history teacher, he took a job as a special ed teacher last summer (which he’s also qualified to do) with the hopes he could eventually switch departments when a history vacancy came up.
Over the course of the past year, here’s what he saw, according to his lawsuit:
- Two signs on school property promoting a church that rents out space every Sunday
- A Christian group on campus that was started by Pastor Randy Pfaff — not students — and which included Principal Brian Schipper as one of the group’s advisors
- A gathering around the flagpole for Christian prayers every morning — again with the participation of the Pastor and the Principal — that was announced over the school’s loudspeakers and blocked the entrance to the school
- Flyers for the club (featuring the Principal’s contact information) distributed in “teacher mailboxes, classrooms, and the School’s guidance office”
- A “Prayer Requests” box in the faculty lounge
- “Jesus Pizza” lunches during the school day, sponsored by the church and Pastor Pfaff
- A special scholarship night for Christian students, during which some students were given money and a personalized Bible. The event was held in the school auditorium with the District’s logo prominently featured. The Principal and Vice Principal John Ward were on stage during the event
- An “all-school assembly” featuring the Todd Becker Foundation (an evangelical Christian group). During that assembly, Bible verses were featured on the screen and students prayed on stage
Are you seeing some of the problems here…?
Earlier this school year, when Basevitz first told the Principal these things were illegal, nothing changed. When he tried again in December, this time telling Superintendent Rhonda Vendetti, he was told to use the side entrances of the school in order to avoid everyone surrounding the flagpole. It wasn’t long before everyone (students and staff) knew that Basevitz, a Jewish man, was the person complaining about the prayers. (One student even yelled at him, “You’re such a Jew!” after this information spread.)
And then, at the end of January, about a month after his formal complaint, Basevitz was suddenly transferred to an elementary school in the District. (So much for that history position he was hoping for…)
I’ve seen that maneuver before — it’s a way for administrators to pressure teachers into hating their job so much that they quit on their own. (A few years ago, I wrote about a Tennessee high school teacher who was transferred to a local middle school after he defended an atheist student who worked on the school newspaper and a gay student who was profiled in the school yearbook.)
Basevitz’s lawyer sees this case the same way — but it’s about more than petty revenge. The District officials are clearly in the wrong here:
“Students are allowed to pray silently before an exam, [but] what schools can’t do is sponsor religion. School faculty cannot promote religion and send a message to the students and other members of the faculty that a certain religion is favored over the others,” Paul Maxon, an attorney representing Basevitz, said.
“When the school PA system is being used to promote these religious activities, when the principal is involved in passing out Bibles to students, when the principal is listed as a contact person for a prayer event, that sends a message to members of faculty [and] the students, that religious activities are part of the school’s activities,” said Maxon.
Again, everything would be fine if all this was student-led, but it’s not. The Principal and other administrators are getting in on the action, and Pastor Pfaff seems to have unquestioned access to students at this school.
His own statements prove he doesn’t get the law:
“I am not going to make apologies for being in a Christian nation and trying to be an instrument that God’s using at the school in a non-intrusive and voluntary way,” Pfaff said.
If we were talking about a Muslim imam doing the sort of things Pfaff is doing, all of this would’ve been shut down a long time ago. But because Christians are in the majority in this community, they’re getting away with things that are plainly illegal.
If Basevitz’s claims are accurate, I don’t see how he loses the case. The bigger question is if the District wants to throw away money trying to defend its promotion of Christianity. It’s Colorado… so that’s definitely a possibility.
(Thanks to Jeff for the link)