Humanist group files suit against school district

Attorney says DCSD did not respond to earlier letters

Posted 10/27/14

The American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit against the Douglas County School District Oct. 22, alleging the district is engaging in religious fundraising events. The lawsuit comes after two previous warnings from the humanist group that such …

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Humanist group files suit against school district

Attorney says DCSD did not respond to earlier letters

Posted

Editor’s Note: U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson on April 22, 2015, removed Wendy Koceski, then-elementary principal of SkyView Academy, and Lisa Nolan, then-executive director at SkyView, from the list of defendants of the lawsuit detailed here.

The American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit against the Douglas County School District Oct. 22, alleging the district is engaging in religious fundraising events. The lawsuit comes after two previous warnings from the humanist group that such activities violate the United States and Colorado constitutions.

An AHA attorney said Douglas County parents continue to sound the alarm on religious activities within the district’s schools.

“As far as we can tell from speaking to people in the community, there’s still a significant problem with religion in the school system there,” said Dave Niose, an attorney for the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “I think it’s safe to say it kind of permeates the culture, quite frankly.”

The school district issued a response to the lawsuit by email.

“Douglas County School District supports student-driven community and fundraising efforts to aid those in need,” reads the email sent by spokeswoman Paula Hans. “We applaud our students for being leaders and giving back to others, and will vigorously defend their right to continue to do so. We are also proud of our employees who, on their own time and with donated resources, selflessly serve those who are less fortunate.”

DCSD did not respond when asked if it will use in-house legal counsel or hire outside attorneys to defend it in the case.

In June 2014, the AHA sent a letter to DCSD, saying Highlands Ranch High School and Cougar Run Elementary improperly supported a Christian mission trip to Guatemala. The AHA said the school district never responded to its letter.

The lawsuit filing says schools including Fox Creek, Mammoth Heights and Prairie Crossing elementary schools, along with Cresthill Middle School, were proceeding with plans for a Belize mission trip throughout the summer of 2014.

In November 2013, Highlands Ranch’s SkyView Academy charter school halted its participation in a Christian proselytizing organization, Operation Christmas Child, after the AHA challenged its legality. The drive continues as a student-led effort, according to SkyView school officials.

The AHA complaint states that for the past few years, at least three DCSD schools — including SkyView Academy, Chaparral High School and Flagstone Elementary — have participated in Operation Christmas Child.

The lawsuit names as defendants DCSD, the board of education, Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen, Cougar Run Elementary Principal John Gutierrez, HRHS Principal Jerry Goings, SkyView Academy elementary principal Wendy Koceski, SkyView executive director Lisa Nolan and former SkyView principal Mike Munier, now principal at Platte River Academy. Plaintiffs include the AHA, four anonymous Douglas County parents and their children.

The suit “challenges defendants’ policy, practice, and custom of advancing, endorsing, affiliating with, and sponsoring — both symbolically and tangibly — Christian organizations and their proselytizing and evangelical efforts.”

Niose said the AHA is seeking a court declaration that the schools’ practices are unconstitutional and an order that they cease.

Niose said the district’s failure to respond to its letters is uncommon.

“They never gave us any assurances these practices were stopping,” he said. “Usually, we get some kind of response, some kind of willingness to discuss the issues.

“We’ve just heard of so many problems over there; it does seem litigation is necessary just to get people to even respond seriously to concerns.”

Niose said the AHA’s concern is not about Christianity, and that the organization would take the same position with a governmental entity promoting Islam or Judaism.

“If a school system were trying to do for Islam what it’s doing for Christianity here in Douglas County, the citizens of Douglas County would understand our position immediately,” he said. “For some reason when it’s Christianity, they seem to think there’s a Christian privilege. But there isn’t under the constitution.”

The district has 30 days in which to respond to the filing.

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