FFRF letter stops Christian group’s illegal privileges at Minnesota high school

In the public school district of Owatonna, Minn., “Youth leaders” from Young Life, a Christian youth ministry, were permitted to host events free of charge on school property, distribute religious literature during school hours, and received special opportunities to promote itself and evangelize to students during school hours. Young Life hosted a yearly fundraiser at the high school, and auctioned off to the highest bidder a special parking space at the school (see photo). The district is adapting and creating policies that will put an end to these practices in response to an FFRF letter of complaint and open records request sent in March, and a follow-up request in August to stop unconstitutional promotion of religion in the district.

According to its Web site, “Young Life brings the good news of Jesus Christ into the lives of adolescents with an approach that is respectful of who kids are and hopeful about who they can be.” It envisions that “every adolescent will have the opportunity to meet Jesus Christ and follow Him.” The group originated when a local minister invited the group’s founder “to consider the neighborhood high school as his parish and develop ways of contacting kids who had no interest in church.” The Young Life “history” webpage states: “Young Life’s mission remains the same — to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in their faith. This happens when caring adults build genuine friendships and earn the right to be heard with their young friends.”

Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s letter addressed the many state/church entanglements between the district and Young Life. “The support given to a Christian organization demonstrates your school district’s unlawful preference not only for religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over other faiths,” the letter said. “No religious organization should have special access to proselytize during the school day at Owatonna High. . . . In fact, no outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school. This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags. . . . Owatonna High’s repeated and excessive allowance of Young Life to proselytize during school hours is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Courts have granted injunctions against schools for their complacency in similar situations.”

While Young Life representatives were previously not required to register to visit students during school hours, the district wrote that it will now adopt a more formal visitors policy, which includes requiring all visitors to sign in and out, obtain administrator permission to be in the building and to wear identification while in the building, among other restrictions. Regardless of the access, “visits by anyone shall not be utilized for the purpose of distributing religious or other nonschool-related materials or promoting religious organizations or activities.” The district agrees with the Foundation that Young Life should have been charged for use of school facilities and equipment, and “The School District intends to correct this practice with all future facility and equipment users, including, but not limited to, Young Life.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation