Atheists sue after child 'exposed' to cross on field trip permission slip

by Gregory Tomlin, |
The logo of Victory Ministry and Sports Complex, which the American Humanist Association alleges in a May 27 lawsuit "injured and aggrieved" the child of a non-Christian mother. Children at a Joplin, Missouri, middle school went to the sports complex on a field trip. The child named in the lawsuit did not attend.

JOPLIN, Mo. (Christian Examiner) – A middle school principal and school superintendent in Missouri are being sued by the American Humanist Association (AHA) for exposing the child of a non-Christian mother to an "overtly Christian venue" – a sports 62,000 sqauare ft. facility owned by a Christian and sports ministry.

"Plaintiff is a non-Christian and is injured and aggrieved by the actions complained of herein because Doechild I has been exposed to Defendants' promotion and endorsement of religion," the AHA said in the complaint filed on behalf of the mother May 27.

"Doechild I also felt coerced by the school to participate in religious activity. Such actions by the School District have made Jane Doe, Doechild I, and Doechild II feel like outsiders and unwelcome in the School District."

David Niose, AHA's legal director, said in a statement that sending students on a field trip "to an overtly Christian venue with proselytizing Christian messages" meant the school district had engaged in "unconstitutional conduct."

Joplin Public School officials who responded to the filing in U.S. District Court in Springfield said no proselytizing took place at the event at the Victory Ministry and Sports Complex May 8, according to the Joplin Globe.

But both the parent and atheist organization allege scheduling the activity in the environment, in itself, was an "endorsement and promotion of religion."

According to the lawsuit, signs at the complex "utilize a Christian cross as the 't' in the word 'Victory.'" Banners also mention the name of Jesus, worship and hope, "the confident expectation that what God has promised is true," the complaint said.

The AHA also alleges that the permission slip for parents to sign in order to allow students to attend the field trip expressly stated that parents understand that their children may be invited to Bible studies and local churches while at Victory. The permission slip, it said, "required parents to allow their child to participate in 'worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith.'"

In reality, the permission slip offered by AHA was a waiver and release produced by Victory Ministry and Sports Complex, rather than an official school district form.

Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff was notified by AHA about the legal threat May 8, long before the field trip took place. According to the court filing, Huff acknowledged that the permission slip was poorly worded.

Roy Speckhardt, AHA's executive director, said in a statement the school district's proselytizing to children on a field trip "disrespects the rights of the students of minority faiths and of no faith."

"No child should be forced to choose between attending an unconstitutional field trip or missing a day of school," Speckhardt said. According to the complaint, the "injured" child ultimately did not attend the field trip.

In most such cases, juries or judges will determine whether the purpose of the field trip was religious or secular in nature, and if the environment alters the purpose. Courts, for instance, allow voting booths in churches, because voting serves a secular function.

"The field trip is secular and the location was chosen by the students as a celebration," Kelli Price, a communications official with Joplin Schools, told the Joplin Globe.

The facility, according to its website, is home to a cafe, video games, a gym and fitness center, a wellness center, multiple athletic courts, boxing rings, indoor soccer, youth wresting, a rock wall, and a batting cage, as well as facilities for lock-ins, conferences, and other community and business events. 

The complex is also home to "House of Hope Teen Counseling Center," and lists itself as a 501(c)(3) public charity. An employee answering the phone told Christian Examiner the facility used to be a skate park, but was revamped and re-opened in 2013.