Court hears arguments on school district case involving religion

Promotion of mission trip by Fellowship of Christian Athletes is at issue in lawsuit

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A lawyer for the American Humanist Association argued in a courtroom Nov. 16 that the Douglas County School District has a track record of promoting Christian causes, violating the Constitution.

A school district lawyer countered that no students were forced to participate in the events that led to the AHA's lawsuit two years ago, and that the programs were secular in nature.

The lawyers presented oral arguments before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case revolving around the promotion at two schools of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes mission trip and supply drive to aid people in Guatemala.

The incident took place in 2014 at Highlands Ranch High School and Cougar Run Elementary, where a supply drive was held. In addition, a flier and email promoting the effort were sent to students and families at a number of schools in the district.

The plaintiffs in the case are identified in court documents as John Doe, Jack and Jill Roe — who have two children attending school in the district — and Jane Zoe, on behalf of her son, who was a student at Cougar Run in Highlands Ranch at the time. Zoe argued that her son was taunted for not believing in God after he declined to participate in the program, which the AHA said took place during school hours. The plaintiffs' real names were not available.

The lawsuit names as defendants the school district, the board of education, former Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen, Cougar Run Elementary Principal John Gutierrez and former HRHS Principal Jerry Goings. Fagen and Goings no longer work for the district.

The American Humanist Association — a group that says it works to ensure the separation of church and state — filed a lawsuit against the Douglas County School District on Oct. 22, 2014.

The AHA said the district's program was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of and from religion.

David Niose represented the American Humanist Association and Eric V. Hall represented the school district.

The district argued “a secular supply drive took place for secular reasons and that no religious content took place at the school.”

Hall also said students were not forced to participate and that Zoe's son was able to opt out.

“Receiving the flier and email had no coercive effect,” Hall said.

Niose argued that the school district was promoting a mission that had a goal of converting people to Christianity. He also said the affiliation and joint promotion with FCA made it obviously not secular.

Niose said the Douglas County School District has repeatedly promoted evangelical Christian programs, such as Operation Christmas Child — a holiday toy drive sponsored by a Christian group Samaritan's Purse — despite warnings.

“This is a school district that has an extensive record of promoting a Christian mission,” Noise said.

It was not known when the judges from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals would issue an opinion on the case.

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