In June of 2014, 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 could not support or raise money for it, 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 that an email sent by a school official to parents urging them to donate supplies and money 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, too — 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, in October of 2014, 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 the school 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 AHA asked the judge to rule that the District violated the Constitution, prevent the District from partnering with Christian groups in the future, and force the District to pay all the court costs and attorneys’ fees.
Last April (in 2015), both sides reached a settlement, at least with regard to Operation Christmas Child:
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 was resolved — each plaintiff represented by the AHA received only $1 from the District since this was never about money — the other legal challenges were still in play.
Earlier this year, the rest of the issues were decided, and the outcome was thoroughly disappointing.
A Colorado federal district court judge said that the AHA’s plaintiffs did not have proper legal standing to bring the case. In other words, they had no stake in this, so there was no point deciding the case on its merits.
Some of the plaintiffs didn’t show injury, the judge said, and the ones who were affected weren’t affected by the programs in question. (They were no longer in those classes, didn’t attend the school, etc.)
To put it another way, the court punted on this, something that happens often in Establishment Clause cases involving atheists. The judge wasn’t saying the District didn’t break the law, only that it was an irrelevant matter since the people complaining had no right to sue over the matter.
The AHA disagreed. They said in February that they would be appealing that decision, saying their plaintiffs did indeed have standing:
“As parents of students in the school district and as taxpayers, these families had their First Amendment right to religious neutrality violated,” said David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association. “We will continue to seek justice for them and to ensure that the public school district abides by the Establishment Clause in the future.”
“We’re shocked by the court’s disregard of non-Christian students and families,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “The school district blatantly and repeatedly misused taxpayer dollars to unconstitutionally promote religion in public schools.”
Zoes undeniably have standing for nominal damages. The court conceded Zoes had at least two direct, unwelcome contacts with school-sponsored Christian fundraising. Zoes were repeatedly solicited to donate money and items to support Christian organizations and their evangelical trip. Zoe-Son felt that his teachers and peers expected his participation. Under the controlling “direct, unwelcome contact” standard, this is beyond sufficient, especially because nominal damages must be awarded for a single constitutional violation.
Roes also have standing to challenge both District-wide, District-approved practices because they apply to their school and injure them in an ongoing manner. Roes’ likelihood of future injury is also particularly acute because Roe-Daughter will be a freshman at DCHS in 2017 where freshman homeroom participates in OCC. Roes are considering changing schools to avoid the religious practices.
Finally, all three families have municipal taxpayer standing because their District taxpayer dollars are expended on the unconstitutional activities. As explained below, to uphold the court’s ruling will abolish municipal taxpayer standing altogether.
We’ll see what the Appeals Court decide.
Keep in mind that the District will eventually have to decide one way or the other whether they want to keep promoting Christianity. Because even if the AHA loses on appeal, it’s entirely possible other atheists (with proper legal standing, no matter how you slice it) could sue in the future.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)