Elementary school’s support of high school’s FCA program violated the Establishment Clause

You may have heard of the American Humanist Association (“AHA”).  It has sued school districts all over the country and touts itself as a non-profit organization that promotes the “separation of church and state and the constitutional rights of humanists, atheists and other freethinkers.”  And, hence, one of the latest cases brought by “Jane Zoe” (the litigious cousin of Jane Doe).

Ms. Zoe sued the school district where her two children attend elementary school, claiming that it created a culture of promoting the Christian religion, particularly with respect to a Guatemala mission trip for members of the nearby high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (“FCA”).

Ms. Zoe complained about (1) a week-long supply drive for the mission trip hosted by the elementary school during school hours; (2) a flyer and emails sent to families communicating that the supply drive was “sponsored by” 6th graders partnering with the FCA; (3) that one week’s proceeds from the elementary school’s newsletter were donated to the trip; (4) that monetary donations were to be made via checks payable to the elementary school; and (5) that students and faculty who went on the mission trip used the supplies donated at the elementary school to aid in their proselytizing activities.

Ms. Zoe maintained that her children felt coerced to participate in these efforts and as non-Christians, they felt “like outsiders and unwelcome in our own community.”

The Court found in favor of Ms. Zoe, holding that the district’s actions violated the Establishment Clause.  As you know, the First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Court applied the Lemon test addressing “three main evils against which the Establishment Clause was intended to afford protection”: sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement in the religious activity. Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612 (1971).

The Lemon test provides that government action does not violate the Establishment Clause so long as it (1) has a secular purpose, (2) does not have the principal or primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and (3) does not foster an excessive entanglement.  All three of those prongs must be present to find no violation of the Establishment Clause.

According to the court, the district ran afoul of the Lemon test on prongs two and three.  While the purpose of supporting the FCA trip included a connection to the school’s Latin American social studies curriculum, the effect of the trip was “overtly religious” and the partnership between the elementary school and the FCA program resulted in “excessive entanglement” that included fundraising, multiple communications, and the supply drive.  The court found that this crossed the line and violated the Zoes’ constitutional rights.  If that’s not enough of a bummer, the court ruled that the Zoes were entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees and costs.  Ouch.

The case is Am. Humanist Ass'n, Inc. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, No. 14-CV-02878-RBJ, 2018 WL 3439365 (D. Colo. July 17, 2018).


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