Kansas school cancels Operation Christmas Child after atheist group files complaint

Operation Christmas Child, the annual holiday outreach event organized by Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse, shipped off more than 60,000 shoeboxes for young survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, at JFK Airport's Hangar 19 in New York City. | The Christian Post/Scott Liu

A Kansas school has canceled its participation in Operation Christmas Child after an atheist group wrote to the school district alleging that the program “violates basic constitutional principles.”

The annual project is sponsored by the Christian nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse, through which shoeboxes filled with gifts are sent to children in more than 160 nations.

Liberty Middle School must “cease participation in Operation Christmas Child or taking any other actions promoting Christianity like including religious references over morning announcements,” the atheist legal group, Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote to Tony Helfrich, the superintendent of Pratt School District, claiming “many egregious constitutional violations [are] occurring” at the school.

“Regarding our students’ participation in ‘Operation Christmas Child,’ we are discontinuing that effort upon learning that its mission is more sectarian in nature than we realized,” Helfrich wrote in a Nov. 7 response letter to FFRF.

“A lot of these groups rely on school authorities being ignorant about their mission,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in response to Helfrich’s decision. “We appreciate how swiftly the district discontinued the fundraising after our alert.”

Samaritan’s Purse is led by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of the late evangelist Billy Graham. When children worldwide receive the shoeboxes filled with toys, they also hear the Gospel message and receive a booklet that teaches them about Jesus Christ. 

In a recent interview with The Christian Post, Billy Graham’s grandson, Edward Graham, said shoeboxes filled with gifts were reaching more children and unreached people with the Gospel than the massive global evangelistic events his grandfather held over decades.

“More kids have heard about Christ through these shoebox distributions than ever heard about Christ in stadiums with my grandfather,” said Graham, vice president of programs and government relations at Operation Christmas Child. 

The FFRF called Samaritan’s Purse “a pervasively sectarian religious organization” and argued that the use of “school staff and resources to convert people to Christianity violates basic constitutional principles.”

“While it is laudable for a public school to promote student involvement in the community by volunteering and donating to charitable organizations, the school cannot use that goal as an avenue to fund a religious organization with a religious mission,” FFRF added in its letter. “Certainly, there are other secular nonprofit organizations that offer charitable opportunities.”

Samaritan’s Purse says it has for over 40 years “done our utmost to follow Christ’s command by going to the aid of the world’s poor, sick, and suffering. We are an effective means of reaching hurting people in countries around the world with food, medicine, and other assistance in the Name of Jesus Christ. This, in turn, earns us a hearing for the Gospel, the Good News of eternal life through Jesus Christ.”

In the spring of 2016, Samaritan’s Purse held an outreach event for the Himba people, an unreached people group in the village of Opuwo, which sits on the border of Angola and Namibia in Africa. Later that fall, a ministry partner, Pastor Rizera, traveled the long distance across cow paths and over six dry river beds to bring Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts and the Gospel message to the Himba children.

The Himba tribe consists of 50,000 semi-nomadic people who live in a region across Southern Angola to Northern Namibia. Before the shoebox distribution, the people of Ombaka mostly practiced ancestral worship and were resistant to the Gospel message, with less than 3% of people professing to be Christian. Following an Operation Christmas Child outreach event that hosted 130 children in the village, 46 children and six young adults wanted to continue to learn more about Jesus.

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