Appeals Court Revives Part of Suit Over Alleged School District Religious Practices

By Mark Walsh — June 20, 2017 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has revived part of a lawsuit challenging alleged practices in a Colorado school district to promote fundraising on behalf of Christian groups and allow teachers to participate in student religious groups.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, upheld the dismissal of most of the suit, but it did allow one parent’s claim to move forward. That claim alleges that the 67,000-student Douglas County school district violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion when it partnered with a Christian student group and solicited donations from the parent and her son for students to go on a foreign religious mission.

A group of parents and students, backed by the American Humanist Association, sued the Douglas County district to challenge a range of alleged unconstitutional practices. The suit alleges that public school administrators partnered with groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Adventures in Mission to promote and seek donations for activities such as overseas religious missions. The suit also alleges that some district schools allowed teachers to attend meetings of student religious groups such as FCA and participate in events such as the annual “See You at the Pole” student religious observance outside of public schools.

A federal district court dismissed all of the claims, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing because none were personally injured by the alleged violations and that none qualified for taxpayer standing.

In its June 20 decision in American Humanist Association v. Douglas County School District RE-1, the 10th Circuit panel upheld the district court on most of the standing determinations.

But the appellate court revived the claim of a parent identified in court papers as Jane Zoe. The suit says Zoe and her son at Cougar Run Elementary School were asked in 2014 to donate to a fundraiser for a spring break mission to Guatemala involving Adventures in Mission and FCA.

Zoe said in the suit that her son “felt coerced into participating and contributing to this religious fundraiser” and that school officials “expected participation.” She further said that “as non-Christians, the school’s actions in promoting and endorsing a Christian organization ... made us feel like outsiders and unwelcome in our own community.”

The district court had ruled that because Zoe’s contacts with the challenged actions were not “conspicuous or constant,” she did not suffer a legal injury for standing purposes. The appeals court disagreed.

“The record demonstrates that Zoe was directly and personally solicited by school officials to donate to a ‘mission’ trip, and she was informed that a class at her son’s school was ‘partnering with’ a religious group ... to conduct the fundraiser,” the appeals court said. “The solicitation further advised that checks for the event should be written to the school. ... These unwelcome contacts are sufficient to establish injury with respect to Zoe’s claim to retrospective relief.”

The case now goes back to the district court.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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