School Violated Law by Promoting Fellowship of Christian Athletes Mission Trip, Court Rules

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A Colorado school district violated the law by promoting a Christian group's mission trip to a poverty-stricken Central American country, according to a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled Tuesday that Douglas County School District violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when school officials promoted and helped fundraise for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes trip to Guatemala.

The ruling comes nearly four years after an initial complaint was filed on behalf of an unnamed mother of a student at Cougar Run Elementary school who objected to school officials' promotion of the mission trip sponsored by Highlands Ranch High School's chapter of the FCA.

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The FCA chapter planned a trip through an organization called Adventures in Missions with stated goals to "promote Christianity" and to "introduce [children] to the Bible," according to a court document. A total of 14 high school students and two teachers went on the trip during spring break of 2014.

The mother accused Cougar Run Principal John Gutierrez of overstepping his legal rights by promoting the FCA mission trip in a fundraising email sent to parents.

Sixth grade teacher Micki Benge was accused in the lawsuit of spearheading a supply drive to fundraise for the trip. The supply drive took place during school hours and Benge allegedly passed out flyers in the school to raise awareness of the drive.

The unnamed parent also objected to her child's preschool teacher sending out an email promoting the supply drive.

The plaintiff, known as "Ms. Zoe," argued that her son "felt coerced into participating and contributing to this religious fundraiser."

Jackson agreed with Ms. Zoe, who was represented by the Washington-based American Humanist Association, a national legal group that advocates for a strict separation of church and state.

Jackson granted the plaintiff a summary judgment that will include the payment of reasonable costs and attorney's fees.

"The Court holds that the constitutional rights of Ms. Zoe and her son guaranteed by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution were violated by those defendants," Jackson wrote in her ruling.

Jackson reasoned that the school district's actions were "an excessive government entanglement with religion" and supported an "overtly Christian cause."

"Indeed, the District itself described its relationship with the FCA and the supply drive as a 'partnership,'" she wrote. "These actions and words had 'the effect of advancing . . . religion.' ... As such, I find that the District fails under the third prong of [the] Lemon [test]. Because the District fails on prongs two and three, summary judgment in Ms. Zoe's favor is appropriate."

The school district attorney had argued that the fundraiser was not religious in nature and was designed to raise "an increased awareness of and appreciation for poverty in a Latin American country, and a feeling of pride that [DCSD schools] sought to help poor children in an area of the world they were studying in class."

Douglas County Schools public information officer Paula Hans explained in a statement to The Christian Post Thursday that the school district is in the process of reviewing the matter following the judge's ruling.

"We will determine next steps once we have analyzed the decision," Hans wrote.

The ruling was praised by lawyers with the AHA.

"Religious minorities in public schools should never be faced with school-sponsored activity that promotes the majority religion," AHA legal director David Niose said in a statement. "The court's ruling correctly finds that the district's activities had the effect of promoting religion and excessively entangled the government with religion."

Jackson ordered both sides to confer in an attempt to reach an agreement over "reasonable amounts of costs and attorney's fees." If both sides can't agree within three weeks of the order, they will have to set a hearing to determine the amounts.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith Follow Samuel Smith on Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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