(MADISON, WIS.) The national Freedom From Religion Foundation has settled a federal lawsuit against the Cherry Creek School District in Denver, Colo., over a policy that urged children to spend an hour a week at a religious institution. The District and the Foundation agreed upon wording to include encouragement to children to spend an hour a week in various civic or educational pursuits, including not only religious but irreligious. Filed on behalf of parents with children in the District, the lawsuit challenged a program known as 40 Developmental Assets."
The disputed Asset 19 stated: "Religious Community – Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities in a religious institution." The asset was prominently posted in Cherry Creek public schools alongside the photo of a young child with her hands clasped as though in prayer under the title "Faith Community." After a nearly 2-year protracted legal case, the Foundation and the school district agreed upon this new wording for Asset 19: "Intergenerational Activities – Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities with civic, social, governmental, scientific, educational, charitable, faith based or secular (non-religious) organizations."
"I am a purist when it comes to the Establishment Clause," noted the Foundation's Denver attorney Robert R. Tiernan, who handled the complicated case. "I don't believe the Constitution allows government to promote or endorse religion in any way and that this cannot be cured by giving 'equal time' to atheism. On the other hand, if government is going to accommodate religion, then it has to equally accommodate nonreligion. In the end, this might be too bitter a pill for the religious folks to swallow. Maybe, if there had to be a White House office of Atheism to equalize the Faith-Based Initiative, there wouldn't be a Faith-Based Initiative at all. That would be the best of all possible results."
The case was initially dismissed by U.S. District Judge Marcia S. Krieger in September 2008, but the Foundation amended and refiled a very strong Complaint later that month, linking the violation to the Lutheran Brotherhood. Tiernan introduced evidence linking the District's 40 Developmental Assets to a Lutheran, scripture-based program. The Foundation's refilings documented the religious origins and purpose of the assets. "We would have preferred that the asset had been expunged entirely, because it's not the business of a school to encourage students to spend an hour a week in a 'faith-based' pursuit. However, it's probably a 'first' that a school district has ever encouraged students to spend an hour a week on pursuits including those that are 'nonreligious,' so we consider this a unique victory," commented Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.