Get rid of religious partner, FFRF advises Wis. school district

Church Health Services

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is raising objections to a constitutionally problematic partnership between a Wisconsin school district and a religious entity.

The Waupun Area School District has partnered with Church Health Services to provide on-site mental health and substance abuse counseling for students.

“While we certainly support the district’s goal of providing mental health and substance use counseling to students of a vulnerable and impressionable age, explicitly partnering with a faith-based organization appears to favor not only religion but Christianity over all religions,” FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald writes to Waupun Area School District Administrator Steve Hill. “We believe that the district can achieve its goal of providing mental health and substance use counseling without partnering with a faith-based organization.”

The Waupun Area School District is attempting to disentangle itself from Church Health Services with a series of provisions in the memorandum of understanding. However, these attempts are futile, FFRF asserts.

First, the memorandum is inconsistent. The district purports to control the scope of activities of the Christian counseling organization, while the group is allowed autonomy in its provision of services.

Second, the regular presence of Church Health Services on-campus creates the impression that the district favors religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over other religions. A reasonable observer entering a school building to find the group offering services would presume that the district endorses and approves of its services and views.

Further, the memorandum attempts to minimize the group’s faith-based nature by characterizing it as “a mental health counseling provider.” But according to Church Health Services itself, it is “an ecumenical health ministry committed to enacting God’s plan.”

And in failing to charge the faith-based organization with district facility use fees, while still charging secular groups, the district has shown preference for religion over nonreligion. This is an ever-more hazardous violation of the Establishment Clause and breach of the district’s own fiscal policy in light of the district’s $36 million debt referendum and $1.5 million bond debt, which was intended for building improvements, not religious services. The district’s fiscal health has since worsened, as it is currently $40 million in debt. Even then, the district waived the bidding period for mental health services — exiling secular service providers and eliminating the chance to use the partnership as an asset generator. In doing this and relinquishing the facility use fees, the district has demonstrated a preference for Christianity at the expense of constitutional rights and fiscal health.

To avoid these constitutional concerns, the Waupun Area School District must discontinue the partnership with Church Health Services, FFRF underscores. The problem here is immense — and the solution is simple.

“It is absolutely unnecessary for school officials to venture into a thicket of thorny constitutional questions in picking a religiously sectarian counseling group,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This partnership is unconstitutional.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization, headquartered in Madison, Wis., with nearly 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 1,500 members and a chapter in Wisconsin. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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