The Freedom From Religion Foundation has settled a federal lawsuit against the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado over a policy that urged children to spend an hour a week at a religious institution.
Filed on behalf of parents with children in the school district and their children, the suit challenged a program called “40 Developmental Assets.” In dispute was “Asset 19,” which said:
“Religious Community — Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities in a religious institution.”
The district, Colorado’s fourth-largest, is based in the south Denver suburb of Greenwood Village. In the settlement, the parties agreed on revised wording to encourage students to spend an hour a week in various civic or educational pursuits, including not only religious but “nonreligious” activities. The new Asset 19 wording is:
“Intergenerational Activities —Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities with civic, social, governmental, scientific, educational, charitable, faith-based or secular (nonreligious) organizations.”
Asset 19 was prominently posted in Cherry Creek public schools alongside a photo of a young child with her hands clasped as though in prayer under the title “Faith Community.”
“I am a purist when it comes to the Establishment Clause,” said Robert R. Tiernan, the Foundation’s Denver attorney who handled the 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.”
After U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger dismissed the lawsuit, originally filed in 2007, in September 2008, the Foundation refiled it that same month, linking the violation to the Lutheran Brotherhood.
Tiernan introduced evidence tying the school district’s 40 Developmental Assets to the Search Institute. The Foundation’s refilings documented the religious origins and purpose of the assets:
“The 40 Developmental Assets were developed by an organization known as the Search Institute. The Search Institute was founded approximately 50 years ago by Dr. Merton P. Strommen, a noted Christian author and a devout Lutheran. The Institute was originally named the Lutheran Youth Group and focused on youth in religious settings and on the ministry. To the best of the Plaintiffs’ information, knowledge, and belief, the Search Institute was and continues to be heavily financed by and through the Lutheran Brotherhood and has a history of actively promoting religion.”
“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 or nonreligious pursuit,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president. “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.”
The settlement protects the anonymity of the other claimants, identified in court documents as John and Mary Coe, and their children.
“Our thanks to the plaintiffs with children in the Cherry Creek School District, who made this lawsuit possible,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.
While the Foundation spent more than $30,000 on the case, the settlement included no monetary award for damages and no admission of wrongdoing or liability by Cherry Creek.
“In the end, this might be too bitter a pill for the religious folks to swallow,” Tiernan said. “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.”