JOPLIN, Mo. — A federal judge appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama has ruled that local public schools who took students on field trips to a Christian sports complex in Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution.
M. Douglas Harpool opined on Thursday that the voluntary trips to Victory Ministries and Sports Complex were “an impermissible entanglement of government, government funding, and government authority with a particular religion and religious message in violation of the Establishment Clause.”
According to reports, various schools within the Joplin School District visited the facility in 2014 and 2015, including North Middle School, which conducted the trip after students were provided an opportunity to vote on three options for their outing. School officials state that the majority of youth chose the sports complex. Students in the district also visited the facility for abstinence-only sexual education.
The students were sent home with permission slips and waivers, the latter of which included a clause where the parent agreed that their child had “permission to participate in worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith.”
The American Humanist Association (AHA) soon became involved after some parents expressed concern. The organization specifically told Superintendent C.J. Huff that the North Middle School trip was unconstitutional, and that if it was not canceled, they would sue.
Huff acknowledged that the waiver language could have been worded differently, and Principal Brandon Eggleston advised that the paragraph would be omitted altogether in the future. Eggleston also instructed staff members attending the trip to ensure that no evangelistic activity occurred during the visit.
But AHA followed through with its lawsuit, which it filed on behalf of three students in the district, one of whom reportedly felt “sad and left out” in that they had to forego the event because their family is not Christian, and another who contended they never received a permission slip for the sex ed trip and went to the event without their parents’ knowledge.
On Thursday, Harpool ruled that the district’s relationship with Victory Ministries is a “grave concern.”
“Entangling school district operations, curriculum, activities or opportunities with those of a religious organization or religious belief set is not permitted,” he wrote. “The government cannot pick from among the many religious beliefs of those it governs which it wishes to advance. While conservative fundamental evangelical Christian beliefs, such as those expressed by Victory, may predominate in the Joplin District, they are not universal.”
AHA applauded the outcome.
“The school district has been funneling money and impressionable students to a religious ministry that is in the business of luring children to Christianity, and we’re glad that the court could see that this is clearly unconstitutional activity,” said legal director David Niose in a statement.
As previously reported, in a recent dissenting opinion in a New Mexico Ten Commandments case, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Paul Kelly, Jr. and Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich noted that the Establishment Clause is being interpreted incorrectly and not in “the historical understanding of an ‘establishment of religion,’ and thus with what the First Amendment actually prohibits.”
They explained that “[e]stablishment was … the norm in the American Colonies. Exclusive Anglican establishments reigned in the southern states, whereas localized Puritan establishments were the norm in New England, except in Rhode Island.”
This began in Europe, “the continent of origin for most American colonists,” Kelly outlined. “[E]ach country had long established its own state church—a generalized version of cuius regio, eius religio—over which each government exercised varying degrees of control. Germany and Scandinavia had official Lutheran establishments; Holland, a Reformed state church; France, the Gallican Catholic Church; Ireland, the Church of Ireland; Scotland, the Church of Scotland; and so on.”
Therefore, the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution regarding “respecting an establishment” only referred to showing favoritism to one state establishment over another, and solely applied to the federal government.
“From the words of the text, though, two conclusions are relatively clear: first, the provision originally limited the federal government and not the states, many of which continued to support established churches; and second, the limitation respected only an actual ‘establishment of religion,’” the federal judges outlined.