Judge Dismisses Humanist Lawsuit Against Colorado School District That Promoted Christianity

This past June, 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.

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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 an email sent by a school official to parents urging them to donate supplies and money, which 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, 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.

Now, the rest of the issues have been decided, and the outcome is 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 have no stake in this, so why bother 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.)

The court is basically punting on this, something that happens often in Establishment Clause cases involving atheists. The judge isn’t saying the District didn’t break the law, only that it’s an irrelevant matter since the people complaining weren’t directly affected by what the District did.

The District will have to decide now whether they want to keep promoting Christianity. They got away with it this time, but it’s possible other atheists could sue in the future and win.

(via Religion Clause. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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.


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