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.
But back in May, Robert Basevitz filed a lawsuit against the Fremont RE-2 School District in Colorado, documenting 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
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. Which makes as much sense as pointing out a Ten Commandments monument on government property and having officials tell you to just close your eyes when you come near it — it doesn’t address the actual problem.
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.)
While Basevitz isn’t getting his old job back, he did get the District to settle in court, making sure this faith-based nonsense will never happen again.
It’s no joke. District officials capitulated on everything, which suggests to me their attorney told them “You’re going to lose badly.”
The compromise, released yesterday, is entirely one-sided:
When acting in their official capacities, District employees may not engage in religious activities with their students, such as praying with them. In addition, District employees must avoid activities that would reasonably lead students to perceive religious endorsement by the District.
A district-wide ban on all school-sponsored prayers or other religious expression before school-related captive audiences, such as at all-school assemblies, classroom presentations, graduation ceremonies, and school-sponsored scholarship nights.
A district-wide ban on school sponsorship or endorsement of an religious groups or organizations.
A district-wide ban on all distribution of religious literature by District employees acting in their official capacity.
A district-wide ban on all school-sponsored or school-endorsed religious activities, including sponsorship or announcement or prayer by District employees acting in their official capacities.
Student-led religious groups must be genuinely student-led. District employees may attend such religious groups as observers only, to ensure that school rules are being followed. Non-school persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.
A district-wide ban on all school-sponsored prayer request boxes. Further, the District must ensure that any prayer request boxes in District facilities do not reasonably give the appearance of District endorsement of religion. For example, a prayer request box that is regularly and openly displayed in the school during instructional hours is prohibited.
A district-wide ban on all ceremonies or gatherings, involving prayer or otherwise, that impede safely entering or exiting any school building door.
A district-wide ban on all school-sponsored religious activities, regardless of whether those religious activities occur in school facilities or elsewhere. School-sponsored activities may go to religious sites only so long as there is a legitimately secular reason for doing so, and there is no reasonable non-religious alternative. For example, athletic teams may travel to a religious school to participate in a sporting event.
The District and Cowboy Church at the Crossroads (“the Church”) have mutually agreed that the Church will no longer use District facilities for its worship services. The Church has made a public announcement of where it will conduct such services in the future. The District will also prohibit the use of District facilities by any group that impairs the District’s ability to carry out its educational mission, including groups that create a reasonable risk of liability for violation of constitutional mandates.
Down the line, the District agreed to stop all of its religious ways. Re-reading those items, you have to wonder how they thought any of it was okay in the first place. I’ll take a guess. It happened because no one called them out on the small stuff, so they kept erasing that line of separation between church and state until it was gone for good.
I hope Basevitz is happy with the settlement. The District owes him a huge debt of gratitude for forcing them to change their ways before they got hit with a lawsuit they couldn’t just compromise their way out of.
(Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were posted earlier)