Challenging State Subsidy of Child Evangelism Group
The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national organization of freethinkers working to keep church and state separate, today filed a lawsuit in Dane County Court seeking to force the school district in Rio, Wis., to charge rent to the Child Evangelism Fellowship Group. The evangelism group, part of an international bible-based Christian ministry seeking to convert boys and girls, regularly holds religious meetings targeting elementary students on school property at the end of the school day. The school district also sends home flyers publicizing the after-school evangelism.
The lawsuit was filed in the circuit courtroom of Michael Nowakowski, Dane County, Wis., case no. 08CV1861.
A Foundation parent 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 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."
The Foundation, along with taxpayer plaintiffs Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-presidents and Wisconsin residents, names as defendants Elizabeth Burmaster, State Superintendent of Public Instruction (DPI), and Mark McGuire, district administrator of the Rio Community School District.
The legal Complaint alleges that money drawn from the Wisconsin state treasury and distributed by the DPI is being used unlawfully by local school districts for the benefit of religious organizations. The Complaint notes that the Rio Community School District "insists that it will not charge reasonable compensation . . . 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 also being done with state appropriations. The distribution "requires the time and resources of paid school personal, 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," wrote attorney Rich Bolton in the complaint.
The lawsuit seeks a judgment declaring that the appropriations by the DPI are being used unconstitutionally, and for an order enjoining the defendants from continuing to disburse or use such appropriations in violation of the Wisconsin Constitution. The Foundation also seeks an order requiring the defendants to establish rules, standard and oversight to ensure that future appropriations are not made or used to support religious organizations in violation of the Wisconsin Constitution.