After Lawsuit Threat, South Carolina Elementary School Cancels Partnership with Proselytizing Christian Charity

East Point Academy is a charter elementary school in West Columbia, South Carolina where, for the third year in a row, teachers and administrators were encouraging students to participate in Operation Christmas Child — a program where students could donate toys to impoverished kids overseas.

Sounds nice, right?

Just one catch: Operation Christmas Child is run by the group Samaritan’s Purse and the boxes of toys they give to those impoverished children each come with a pamphlet designed to convert them to Christianity, pledge card and all:

On Monday, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent the school’s administrators a letter telling them to stop their faith-based outreach:

The boxes of toys are essentially a bribe, expressly used to pressure desperately poor children living in developing countries to convert to Christianity, and are delivered with prayers, sermons, evangelical tracts and pressure to convert. While a private religious group is free to pursue such a goal, even through such questionable means, a public school cannot affiliate itself with, endorse, promote or support such a group’s program without violating the Establishment Clause.

In addition to having a religious purpose, the plain effect of Operation Christmas Child is to endorse and promote religion. The school is in effect urging students to make an in-kind contribution, as well as for their parents to make a monetary one, to Samaritan Purse’s conversion efforts. Moreover, the school is plainly sending the message to young school children that the Christianity at the core of Operation Christmas Child is “stamped with [the] school’s seal of approval.

The letter had the intended effect — yesterday, Principal Renee Mathews responded (indirectly) to the AHA, making them aware of a letter she sent out to all the parents (emphasis hers):

At our school only non-religious items have been collected for the boxes, no religious material is distributed to students or included with the boxes and the school has expended no money for the shipping of the boxes which each voluntary participant paid. No incentives or grades are given for any community service projects. Having said all of this, since we are just receiving this notice at this late date and the project ends Friday, we have very little time to seek legal advice. Therefore, in an abundance of caution because we do not want to expend school financial resources defending a lawsuit, we are not going to accept Operation Christmas Child boxes. If you and your child had planned to donate a shoebox of supplies, you are encouraged to find a charity of your choice for the gift. A reminder that Toys for Tots will continue until December 10 so you are encouraged to participate. Thank you for your support.

Even if the boxes from the students were non-religious in nature, by going through an explicitly Christian charity, there was an implicit endorsement of its religious beliefs. If a lawsuit were filed, the school would’ve been on the losing end of it.

What makes me especially upset — even though I’m glad the partnership has ended — is how Mathews casts the AHA as the bad guys here. Note how she says the school is ending the program “in an abundance of caution” because they couldn’t pay to fight a lawsuit. It’s like she really wanted to say, “We would totally continue this program if it wasn’t for that evil group that takes the ‘law’ seriously. Blame them, not us!”

Elsewhere in her letter is an admission that “many public schools in SC and across the United States participate in Operation Christmas Child.” As if everyone doing something illegal makes it okay for them to do something illegal. It’s very possible that other schools participate in OCC. But it takes a brave parent or students to come forward about it before a group like the AHA (or the Freedom From Religion Foundation) can act.

That’s what happened at East Point Academy. A parent notified the AHA of the constitutional violation. The identity was protected, the AHA sent its letter, and the school stopped the endorsement of Christianity. It’s just that easy.

If other parents at other school districts did the same thing, the program would stop at their schools, too, diverting the generosity and goodwill of the families to secular charities that care more about helping people than converting them.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Felicia

    About the pamphlet: The children who get the toys are so poor they can’t afford to buy their own, but they are expected to “get a Bible and begin reading it”? Where are the free Bibles from Samaritan’s Purse?! Cheapskates!!

    • closetatheist

      What got me is that the pamphlet clearly asked the children to “print this page” as if these kids who can’t afford toothpaste have computers and printers? But if it’s already printed out for them, this is really shitty editing.

      • FTP_LTR

        It’s a cost saving in this internet generation – they’re going to email the pamphlet, and a voucher for a toy to each lucky recipient…

        • closetatheist

          Electronic Jesus! Not just relying on telepathy anymore!

        • Rain

          Yep, nailed it…

      • Mario Strada

        That confused me too. I concluded that the idiot must have had it on screen and wrote it that way because of it.

        • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

          Mario, when you say it like that it almost sounds like the folks from Samaritan’s Purse would just be blindly following/parroting what they read without actually thinking about whether it makes sense…. oh, yeah… religious group… you nailed it!

  • Glasofruix

    Get a bible and begin reading it

    That sounds like a plan that could backfire…

    • code_monkey_steve

      Get a bible and begin reading it

      Then finish reading it.

      Then throw it away in disgust.

    • Timmah

      …when you see shit that is ultra violent and/or just flat out crazy, skip over those parts and don’t ask questions.

    • Paul (not the apostle)

      Notice the books of the bible that are suggested. It is no accident that these are promoted. Most of the material in these books provide the warm fuzzy jesus or as in James doing good works. Just imagine if the young readers started in Job or Leviticus. I think reading about David collecting foreskins might be getting off on the wrong foot for our new little christians. However, remember the eternal security theology crowd believes if you can get the kid to say the magic words they are good forever no matter what happens after that. Just count up the kids that say the magic words and put notches in you spiritual belt.

      • Andy_Schueler

        But interesting that they recommend Mark (fundies usually promote John over all other gospels) – Mark is the least magical of the gospels (if you count the number of miracles) and it is the only one that portrays Jesus like a modern miracle healer – a “healer” that has no special powers whatsoever and completely relies on the placebo effect:
        “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. ”
        Mark 6:3-5

        => His magic only works when people believe that it works, sounds like a 1st century Peter Popoff, doesn´t it?

        Mark is a rather bad choice for missionary work, but I´m not complaining – the more incompetent these guys are the better :-).

        • allein

          “His magic only works when people believe that it works, sounds like a 1st century Peter Popoff, doesn´t it?”

          Maybe he’s from Neverland?

        • articulett

          I’d go with Matthew– it has zombies.

  • linb

    thank you to the parents that put an end to this! we were dealing with this type of situation earlier in the school year, and fortunately (i hope) we’ve gotten it resolved in our district without bringing in legal help. hooray!

  • grindstone

    Interesting. I participated in OCC one year because it was hella fun to buy for some unknown kid somewhere in the world, but I had no idea they sent tracts. I stopped when I found out that our local drop off place was this freaky evangelical stupor-mega-church. Oh well, I hope some kid was psyched to get a baseball and glove. This year we’ve chosen Heifer International.

    • Melissa Shumake

      heifer international is such an incredibly great charity, and your gift means so much more than some american consumer crap in a shoebox. solid choice!

  • A3Kr0n

    All a desperately poor child from a foreign country is going to see is a cartoon of some white guy pointing his finger at him/her, and yelling something.

  • aimee00

    I was just at this school a week ago doing and after school science class on sound. It is often the case, around here, for folks to take the victim role when asked to follow the law with regard to their religious activities. South Carolina is a hot bed of evangelism and they are shameless in the schools. I have seen it first hand. It will be a while before this changes.

  • primenumbers

    I only learned about OCC last year when our Ontario Canada school’s kindergarten class wanted to participate. I immediately searched on the “charity” and found it extremely objectionable, not just for participation with a secular school, but also I think it would be objectionable to any religious person with how they use deceit and bribes.

    I wrote to the class teachers and didn’t get a satisfactory response, so my wife and I assembled all the documentation we could find on OCC and put it together with a letter and print-outs of the local school board’s policy (which plainly said such “charities” are not to be supported) to give to the principle. That evening the principle called to apologize and to tell us that we were right, it was against board policy and the school would not be participating.

  • Babbling Brooke

    Why are OCC and such organizations not held accountable if they are actively reaching out to public schools for donations? It would seem to me that they, as well as the school districts, should be fully aware of the laws.

    • Anymouse

      That’s a very good point.

      My guess is they *would* be held accountable if someone with legal merit were to step up to the plate and sue them. It’s wrong that the school board should always be seen as the bad guys, when it’s *possible* they are unaware of the legal implications or the conflict of interest. (I’m sure some are naive, and others are knowingly pushing an Xian agenda.)
      Just to be clear, I think OCC has the right to do their charitable proselytizing, but actively/knowingly soliciting public schools seems to be breach of the law.

      • TheG

        Is suborning a constitutional violation illegal? That would really make a change in this country.

        Imagine that someone who illegally puts a 10 Commandments monument on a courthouse lawn not only has to remove it after the inevitable trial, but goes to jail, too? If religious folk had skin in the game, they might not be so eager to push their nonsense in a haphazard manner.

  • Ubi Dubium

    The UbiDubiKids and I read through the whole pamphlet. Oh my. Acid-trip backgrounds, Disney ripoff art style, and cheesy dialogue that’s in serious need of a snarky re-edit. Plus they skipped from the Garden of Eden right to the nativity, and missed all that awkward violence and begatting in between.

    Plus, we read through the terms and conditions at the beginning of the thing, and they charge you if you want to print out more than two copies yourself! Here they are supposedly spreading “god’s word” and their main concern is to make buck off it? Why am I not surprised?

    • allein

      Heh, my printer is also a copier and scanner, so I would have no problem getting around that 2 copies limit…not that I would waste the paper on even one..

  • baal

    Telling kids that they “belong to god” is a little creepy.

  • Rain

    Who the hell is “Tony”? Any relation to the giant freaking “Donate” buttons plastered all over their web pages? “Fill out our online feedback form giant freking ‘Donate’ buttons” Fixed…

    • Jaime

      I imagine Tony to be this cult’s official missionary spokesperson, coming to these villages with shoeboxes of toys as the carrot. Then whamo! He hits them with the love of God and children are suddenly praying to some white long-haired white dude named Jesus.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Stranger Danger …. Stranger Danger. Sorry, but that guy looks so creepy.

  • DougI

    Just goes to show, fundies don’t care about doing charity. It’s merely a ploy to convert others to fundamentalism. Never trust a fundy, especially one bearing gifts.

  • Jaime

    I’ve been job hunting for a teaching position and about a quarter of the charter school sites I’ve went on contain sketchy stuff. Looking at their calendar of events, I’d see things such as graduations and other celebrations at churches and pastors speaking at school assemblies. There’s an off-chance these events abided by the law, but it’s questionable when we have so many public school decision-makers in the United States who follow a religion urging them to spread the so-called good news.

    • Mr. Two

      “…about a quarter of the charter school sites I’ve went on… .”

      Please tell me you’re not planning to teach language arts!

      • Jaime

        No, I’m hankering for a science position. (Although I did pass the required state exams to earn certification to teach all subjects for K-8). Regardless, I’m not seeing how my grammar is off in that piece you quoted. Care to explain?

  • Janice Clanfield

    Maybe they should encourage the children to start with Leviticus, then move on to the delights of Deuteronomy. They’re my favourites!

    • Anymouse

      Or teach them math, using the book of Numbers. Who knows what that might beget!

      • Some Guy Somewhere

        Judges can trump all the Grimm fairy tales.

  • Beth

    Once upon a time I was a Sunday School teacher. I remember Operation Christmas Child. I did a lesson I was so proud of, about sacrifice and treasures in heaven. I get total douche chills now.

  • rg57

    “Try starting with the book of Mark…”

    Uh huh. No need to start at the beginning. Don’t want to get the wrong idea.

  • ShoeUnited

    It always makes me sad when these people claim everyone’s doing it, but then don’t name names.

  • Wendy L. Rodgers Riddle-Hender

    If you do not believe there is a God then why do you care?? what are you so afraid of?? I hope that Roy Speckhardt and your organization are proud
    of yourselves for making sure that hundreds of needy children go without
    Christmas box’s this year. You must be so proud of yourselves!!!! I mean WOW,
    you WON!!!!!!!!!!! Sad thing is the only people that lost were POOR AND NEEDY CHILDREN!! I guess you all popped open a bottle of expensive champagne and
    congratulated each other, while those POOR AND NEEDY children do not even have clean drinking water and now they have NO CHRISTMAS box’s either. I mean seriously, YOU ARE THE BOMB!!!! If there is a hell, I hope ALL of you ROT in

    • 3lemenope

      If you do not believe there is a God then why do you care?

      If you’re not an atheist, why do you care that we care?

      When you have the answer to that question, the answer to yours should be made clear.