For many students, the high school years are a turbulent time marked by bad decisions and self-centered behaviors. Sometimes, those behaviors get them into trouble.
But one group of Colorado teens has faced criticism--and a resulting lawsuit directed at their school district--for doing something positive. What good deed, exactly, landed the altruistic students in hot water? Raising funds to help impoverished children in Guatemala.
It was back in 2014 when members of Highlands Ranch High School’s chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) were planning a mission trip. They would be spending their spring break in Guatemala with the Christian organization “Adventures in Missions”, and sought to collect supplies and raise money to support the venture. 14 students and two teachers ended up making the trip.
But not everyone was happy about it. A mother of a Douglas County, CO preschooler, represented by the progressive American Humanist Association, sued the Douglas County School District (DCSD) for promoting the trip and, in doing so, allegedly violating her First Amendment rights.
Four long years after the incident in question, a US District Circuit judge has just handed down a ruling indicating he agrees.
According to court documents, “Jane Zoe” claims her son was sent home from Cougar Elementary School with a flyer promoting the FCA supply drive, and that she also received emails from district teachers and a principal asking for donations. This led, she says, to her son feeling “coerced into participating and contributing to this religious fundraiser.” She went on to explain 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."
But DCSD argued that the trip and the fundraising were not intended to be religious in nature, but instead the result of “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.”
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that DCSD did, indeed, violate the constitutional rights of Jane Zoe and her son by supporting the athletes’ fundraising. The ruling reads:
“The Court finds that the defendants’ actions amounted to ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion. Defendants supported an overtly Christian cause through financial donations, through sending emails and flyers to students’ families, and through hosting the supply drive during school hours over the course of a school week.”
In a press release issued after the ruling, legal director David Niose of the American Humanist Association was quoted as saying,“Religious minorities in public schools should never be faced with school-sponsored activity that promotes the majority religion.”
In response, Douglas County School District spokeswoman Paula Hans stated on Wednesday that, “The Douglas County School District is aware of the decision and we are currently reviewing the matter. We will determine the next steps once we have analyzed the decision."
Both sides are supposed to meet in the coming weeks to decide upon the terms of the ruling.
It would seem that, in Douglas County at least, no good deed goes unpunished.