Atheists Win Case Against Missouri School District That Took Students to a Christian Ministry

In 2015, to celebrate their hard work preparing for and taking the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests, the eighth-graders at North Middle School in Joplin were taken to a sports complex with a climbing wall and video games.

Good times!

Here’s the form the parents had to sign:

You can see that parents were told the kids were going to “Victory Sports Complex”… but that’s a little misleading. Because that’s not the place’s name. It’s actually called Victory Ministry & Sports Complex. Which — wait for it — is a ministry.

That wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker. As long as the staffers stuck to watching the children as they played, and there was no attempt to proselytize, there wouldn’t be a problem. It’s really no different from the way churches sometimes host public school graduation ceremonies when they’re the largest venue in town — there’s usually no legal consequence as long as everything is kept secular.

But when you saw the liability form provided by the ministry (and which parents also had to sign), it became clear that the employees there had every intention of converting these children while their parents weren’t around:

We (I) understand that the officers, officials, agents, other participants and employees of Victory Ministry and Sports Complex may be inviting me or (my) our students to Bible studies and local churches of the Christian faith. While at any Victory Ministry and Sports Complex location or event (my) our student(s) has permission to participate in worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith.

Way to sneak that into the middle of the form, right? Also note #10 on that list, which essentially says the ministry can take and use pictures of students to promote their Christian agenda.

Turns out the biggest threat to students at this sports complex were the staffers.

A parent who received this form told me via email:

My daughter was upset, but [understood] that I could not give permission for her to attend this trip. We currently have a date to celebrate on our own this weekend, but she won’t be with all her friends… [I know that] fact is disappointing for her.

When I reached out to administrators at the school to find out why they thought this was okay, Jason Cravens, the Executive Director of Secondary Education for Joplin Schools, sent me this response:

Thank you for your email to Dr. Huff and Dr. Eggleston regarding your concerns over the field trip to Victory Gym. The trip is a celebration for the hard work the students did this year. The students voted for this location. The activities and approaches are completely secular in nature. The permission slip was the standard waiver of Victory Gym. We have not had any parents contact us about concerns, but if they do, we will assure them the secular nature of the trip. Your email brings a good point for us to review the waivers of locations better so our communication can be clearer. I believe removing the language you quote in the email or having it crossed out on the waiver would have created more clarity and removed the confusion for the parents regarding the nature of the trip. Definately something for us to be diligent towards in the future. Thank you, again.

That wasn’t very comforting. District officials were pretending there was no religion involvement at all, even though the forms indicated that wasn’t true. It was the sort of response that said, “Damn, you caught us! Maybe if we just close our eyes, you’ll go away…”

No one went away. In fact, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed a lawsuit against the District after their warnings were ignored.

“By sending students on a field trip to an overtly Christian venue with proselytizing Christian messages, the public school district is engaging in unconstitutional conduct,” said David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association. “It is unimaginable that the school would have sent its students to a complex that promoted Islam, Scientology or another minority religion in a similar way.”

The gist of the suit was that the plaintiffs’ child “was put in the position of having to choose to attend a religious school-sponsored event or forgo participation entirely.” That’s not how a public school district should be operating.

A glimpse inside the ministry complex

Students should never have been taken here on a field trip, the District received multiple warnings about that in advance and ignored them, and that’s why they were sued. They could’ve celebrated the kids’ hard work with a pizza party or by taking them to a secular play area, but they instead chose to take them to church.

The lawsuit called for the judge to issue a “declaratory judgment that district officials violated the Establishment Clause” along with an injunction that would stop this from happening in the future. And attorneys’ fees. And punitive damages for the family. All because these District officials wanted to force Christianity upon these kids.

And by the way: Apparently, these field trips weren’t the only time the District sent students to the Victory Ministry complex. While it wasn’t relevant to the lawsuit, it turned out…

the Joplin District regularly hosts high school excursions to Victory facilities for abstinence-only sex education titled “Battle of the Sexes” provided by Life Choices, a Christian-based organization. The trips take place during school hours, and school busses take the students to the Victory facilities. The trip is considered part of the “curriculum” of the Joplin District. The adults who teach the Joplin High School students while at Victory are selected by the Connection Institute, the prevention services arm of Life Choices.

So the District routinely took students to this Christian center to give them a Christian, non-evidence-based education. That became part of the case against the District.

It’s taken a while, but there’s finally good news. U.S. District Judge Douglas Harpool has ruled that the District indeed violated the law by taking kids to this ministry for a field trip.

“This is a victory for the Constitution,” said David Niose, Legal Director for the American Humanist Association. “The school district has been funneling money and impressionable students to a religious ministry that is in the business of luring children to Christianity, and we’re glad that the court could see that this is clearly unconstitutional activity.”

“The American Humanist Association warned the Joplin School District nearly two years ago of their violation of the Establishment Clause,” said Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association. “The school district ignored the Constitution, and we are happy that the Court delivered the correct ruling.”

According to the Harpool’s ruling, even if District officials claimed they had a secular purpose in mind when rewarding students, they could’ve gone to an actual secular location. They chose not to. Furthermore, by taking students to a ministry during school hours — and paying them money for hosting the trips — the District was helping Victory advance its Christian agenda.

The judge even said students “would rightfully feel coerced by the Joplin District’s field trips, into either not attending the events, or subjecting themselves to religious beliefs contrary to their family’s teaching.”

The ruling didn’t talk about money or attorneys’ fees, but there’s no mistaking the conclusion here: The District was promoting Christianity and the atheists were right to call them out on it.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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