Lawsuit against Missouri school district centers on ‘religious’ field trip

Published 1:00 pm Thursday, May 28, 2015

An organization that works to protect the separation of church and state is suing a Southwest Missouri superintendent and principal after students were sent on a field trip to a Christian ministry and sports facility.

The lawsuit, filed by the legal center of the American Humanist Association, contends the Joplin, Miss., School District violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by allowing the students to go on a field trip to Victory Ministry and Sports Complex. The facility bills itself as a “not-for-profit outreach, a Christ-Centered community center for all ages.”

The action filed in U.S. District Court at Springfield seeks a jury trial, asks the court to declare that actions related to the field trip violated the Establishment Clause, and to permanently enjoin the district from allowing field trips to Victory Ministry and Sports Complex or similar religious venues. The lawsuit names Superintendent C.J. Huff and Brandon Eggleston, principal at North Middle School, as defendants.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are a Joplin mother and her two children, including one who attends North Middle School, and all, the suit said, with a compelling need to remain anonymous. The action focuses on a May 8 field trip to Victory Ministry and on permission slips sent home to parents to let them, according to the lawsuit, “understand their children may be invited to Bible studies and local churches while at Victory.” The same permission slip, the suit alleges, “required parents to allow their child to participate in worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith.”

The lawsuit notes that on May 5 an email was sent by the American Humanist Association to Huff and Eggleston, stating a parent had raised concerns about the trip. It alleges Huff denied that the trip violated the Establishment Clause but conceded the permission slip was inappropriately worded. 

The school district issued a written statement concerning the lawsuit, which “is under review,” according to Kelli Price, district communications director.

“The field trip is secular in nature and the location was chosen by the students as a celebration,” she wrote. “No religious exercises or proselytizing took place on the field trip nor has the lawsuit alleged any such activity took place. We are confident in a positive outcome regarding this case once the facts are revealed.”

In a statement issued in conjunction with the lawsuit, Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said: “Proselytizing to kids on a field trip disrespects the rights of 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.”

The Joplin Globe’s efforts to obtain comment from Huff were unsuccessful. The district’s lawyer, Norman Rouse, did call the paper. He said he would call back after he read the lawsuit but did not. The district’s statement was issued later in the day.    

According to the suit, the AHA sent another email drawing specific attention the religious nature of the Victory operation and warning the field trip would result in litigation. There was no response from the district, the suit said, and the field trip was held. The child of the plaintiff did not attend.

The lawsuit argued that the trip forced the parent to choose between an unconstitutional field trip or no school for her child that day and that as a result, the child was denied a full day of academics. Public school resources and tax money were expended in planning and conducting the field trip, the lawsuit pointed out.

Redden writes for the Joplin (Miss.) Globe.