FFRF Sues State over Subsidy of Child Evangelism Group in Wisconsin School

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit on April 25 over the failure of a public school district to charge rent to the Child Evangelism Fellowship Group, as required by the Wisconsin State Constitution. The lawsuit was filed in the circuit courtroom of Michael Nowakowski, Dane County, Wis., case no. 08CV1861.

The evangelism group regularly holds after-school religious meetings targeting elementary students on Rio school property. The school district also sends home flyers publicizing the evangelism meetings.

The website of the Child Evangelism Fellowship Group describes itself as a Bible-centered, worldwide organization composed of born-again believers whose purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, disciple them in the Word of God and establish them in a Bible-believing church for Christian living.”

A parent who is a member of the Foundation asked the national watchdog group to complain on his behalf more than a year ago. The Foundation and its attorneys have engaged in protracted and fruitless negotiations with the obdurate public school district over its failure to abide by constitutional dictates.

Art. 1, Sect. 18 of the Wisconsin State Constitution prohibits the appropriation of any money from the state treasury for the benefit of religious organizations. The section was amended in the early 1970s to allow public school buildings to be used by religious organizations during non-school hours, upon payment of “reasonable compensation” [emphasis added].

The Foundation–along with taxpayer plaintiffs Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-presidents and Wisconsin residents–names as defendants Elizabeth Burmaster, Wisconsin State Superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and Mark McGuire, district administrator of the Rio Community School District.

The Foundation’s legal Complaint alleges that money drawn from the Wisconsin state treasury and distributed by the DPI is being unlawfully used by the local school district for the benefit of religious organizations, “despite the challenging economic circumstances facing the District.”

The Foundation Complaint points out that the distribution of religious literature directed to “children as young as 5 years old” is likewise being done with state appropriations. Such distribution “requires the time and resources of paid school personnel, who are trying to satisfy academic requirements with already limited resources.”

“School-sponsored distributions of religious material carry the stamp of official endorsement and they constitute a benefit to religious organizations, which rely on school districts to freely promote their activities,” attorney Rich Bolton wrote in the Complaint.

The lawsuit seeks a judgment declaring the appropriations unconstitutional. The Foundation seeks an order requiring the defendants to establish rules, standards and oversight to ensure that future appropriations are not made or used to support religious organizations in violation of the Wisconsin Constitution.

In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an unfortunate ruling that the Child Evangelism Fellowship could not be denied the ability to rent classrooms directly at the close of the school day. Since then, the aggressive outfit has greatly increased its demands to use school buildings to preach to youngsters.

Freedom From Religion Foundation