In order to celebrate their hard work preparing for and taking the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests, the eighth-graders at North Middle School in Joplin were taken to a sports complex with a climbing wall and video games earlier this month.
Here’s the form the parents had to sign:
That’s a little misleading, though, because the name of the place they went to isn’t “Victory Sports Complex.”
It’s Victory Ministry & Sports Complex. Which — wait for it — is a ministry.
But maybe that’s okay. As long as the staffers stuck to watching the children as they played, and there was no attempt to proselytize, there wouldn’t be a problem. It’s really no different from the way churches sometimes host public school graduation ceremonies when they’re the largest venue in town — there’s usually no legal consequence as long as everything is kept secular.
But when you read the liability form provided by the ministry (and which parents also had to sign), it’s clear that the employees there had every intention of converting these children while their parents weren’t around (click image below to enlarge):
We (I) understand that the officers, officials, agents, other participants and employees of Victory Ministry and Sports Complex may be inviting me or (my) our students to Bible studies and local churches of the Christian faith. While at any Victory Ministry and Sports Complex location or event (my) our student(s) has permission to participate in worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith.
Wow… Way to sneak that into the middle of the form.
Turns out the biggest threat to students at this sports complex were the staffers.
A parent who received this form told me via email:
My daughter was upset, but [understood] that I could not give permission for her to attend this trip. We currently have a date to celebrate on our own this weekend, but she won’t be with all her friends… [I know that] fact is disappointing for her.
I reached out to administrators at the school a few weeks ago to find out why they thought this was okay. Jason Cravens, the Executive Director of Secondary Education for Joplin Schools, sent me this response:
Thank you for your email to Dr. Huff and Dr. Eggleston regarding your concerns over the field trip to Victory Gym. The trip is a celebration for the hard work the students did this year. The students voted for this location. The activities and approaches are completely secular in nature. The permission slip was the standard waiver of Victory Gym. We have not had any parents contact us about concerns, but if they do, we will assure them the secular nature of the trip. Your email brings a good point for us to review the waivers of locations better so our communication can be clearer. I believe removing the language you quote in the email or having it crossed out on the waiver would have created more clarity and removed the confusion for the parents regarding the nature of the trip. Definately something for us to be diligent towards in the future. Thank you, again.
That’s hardly comforting. The District is pretending there’s no religion involved at all, even though the forms indicate that’s not true. It’s the sort of response that says “Damn, you caught us! Maybe if we just close our eyes, you’ll go away…”
Well, no one’s going away.
The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center just filed a lawsuit against the District:
“By sending students on a field trip to an overtly Christian venue with proselytizing Christian messages, the public school district is engaging in unconstitutional conduct,” said David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association. “It is unimaginable that the school would have sent its students to a complex that promoted Islam, Scientology or another minority religion in a similar way.”
The gist of the suit is that the plaintiffs’ child “was put in the position of having to choose to attend a religious school-sponsored event or forgo participation entirely.” That’s not how a public school district should be operating.
Students should never have been taken here on a field trip, the District received multiple warnings about that in advance and ignored them, and now they’re going to be punished for it. They could’ve celebrated the kids’ hard work with a pizza party or by taking them to a secular play area, but they instead chose to take them to church.
The lawsuit calls for the judge to issue a “declaratory judgment that district officials violated the Establishment Clause” along with an injunction that would stop this from happening in the future. And attorneys’ fees. And punitive damages for the family. All because these District officials wanted to force Christianity upon these kids.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)