A lawsuit against a Colorado school district must be decided on its merits, according to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which said today that the atheist plaintiffs had proper legal standing to pursue the case.
This all began in June of 2014, when 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 flier, 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 were plenty of non-Christian ways to do it. It’s not like mission trips were 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.
So the problem was even more extensive than anyone thought. It was getting harder to tell whether this was a public school district or a local church.
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.
Both sides reached a settlement in April of 2015, 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.
However when a Colorado federal district court judge heard the case last year, the outcome was thoroughly disappointing. The judge said that the AHA’s plaintiffs did not have proper legal standing to bring the case. 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, 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 of 2016 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.
The oral arguments to defend standing took place in November:
“As taxpaying citizens with children in the school district, these families object to their schools supporting the efforts of Christian missions to convert children in developing countries,” said David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association. “Pressuring students to participate in religious programs in their public schools flies in the face of the separation of church and state that the Establishment Clause demands.”
And finally, today, we heard good news from the Appeals Court: The AHA was right in saying their clients had legal standing to bring the case. Therefore, it’ll be sent back to the lower court for a ruling on the merits.
The record demonstrates that Zoe was directly and personally solicited by school officials to donate to a “mission” trip, and she was informed that a class at her son’s school was “partnering with” a religious group, the “Fellowship of Christian Athletes,” to conduct the fundraiser. The solicitation further advised that checks for the event should be written to the school. Zoe avers that she took the solicitation to mean that school officials “expected participation,” and that it made her family “feel like outsiders and unwelcome in our own community.” These unwelcome contacts are sufficient to establish injury with respect to Zoe’s claim to retrospective relief.
The AHA lawyers say they look forward to having the rest of this case decided by the rule of law rather than some technicality.
“We look forward to further hearing on the merits of the case,” said David Niose, AHA legal director. “With standing now established for AHA and one of the families, we will show that the school district clearly violated church-state separation with its actions.”
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 doesn’t win this case, 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. Top image via Shutterstock)