The Freedom From Religion Foundation talked a California school district out of a scheduled field trip to an evangelical site.
Dixie School District, based in San Rafael, Calif., was planning a field trip for all its fifth graders to Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds, a religious location. The management states that its mission is to provide a place "where our guests meet the Creator in his Creation." The organization touts itself as "the perfect way to reconnect with God." This is a religious goal, and the group considers itself a ministry.
To achieve this objective, Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds discriminates in its hiring, refusing to hire any non-Christian. In fact, the camp does not just discriminate against non-Christians. One must be the right kind of Christian, a "born-again Christian with a biblical lifestyle and an interest in maturing in his/her faith." Even the naturalists who teach public school students at the site are required to subscribe to a Statement of Faith. This makes Alliance a troubling partner for school-sponsored retreats, since California Education Code § 220 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
In keeping with this proclamation, many of the seemingly mundane aspects of the camp are infused with religion. Trail markings feature bible verses. The site store sells religious paraphernalia, including T-shirts with Christian crosses.
Taking public school classes to this camp raised serious constitutional concerns, FFRF contended.
"It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell wrote to Dixie School District Superintendent Jason Yamashiro. "Bringing public school students on a field trip to a religious camp promotes the religious message of that camp."
The fact that participation or attendance on these field trips is voluntary is not a valid safeguard, FFRF added. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.
The religious content of Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds would not be permitted to exist in a public school, FFRF pointed out. The sheer religiosity of the space — a religiosity the site has actively cultivated and marketed to religious clients — made it inappropriate for public schools.
The school district heard FFRF out and decided to change course.
"Thank you for your letter, and both the research and intent behind it," Yamashiro recently emailed FFRF. "Our team has discussed the content and decided not to attend Alliance Redwoods."
FFRF is appreciative about the willingness of the school officials to listen to its reasoning.
"It's heartening that Dixie School District was so impressed with the case we laid out before them," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Such instances make it worth our while to engage in our work and mission."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 30,000 members and 20 chapters across the country, including 4,000 members in California and a chapter based in Sacramento. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.