FFRF ends First Amendment violation in Chicago-area school district

1khusa-logoThe Freedom From Religion Foundation has ended unconstitutional religious promotion within a Chicago suburb school district.

A concerned community member of Community Consolidated School District 15 (CCSD 15) reported to FFRF that the district allows outside adults to engage in one-on-one meetings with students at several district elementary schools, usually during lunch. The adults are affiliated with a faith-based organization named Kids Hope USA that connects “one church” with public schools under the guise of “mentorship.” Kids Hope USA believes the most effective aspect of its program is that it prays for students.

While the adults purportedly discuss only secular topics with students, and do not inform students that “prayer partners” are secretly praying for them, FFRF was informed that these adults had been abusing their access to students by advertising for a religious event.

In a letter sent to CCSD 15 Superintendent Scott Thompson earlier in the school year, FFRF informed the district that, in fact, Kids Hope USA’s website suggests that promoting religious events is a fundamental goal of its program:

“Principals are advised that parents may choose to someday send their children to events at the church, only after parental permission is granted. The scope of a Kids Hope USA program remains focused on the one hour that takes place at school.”

FFRF warned the district that, regardless of parental permission, it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a public school district to allow church representatives unique access to invite students to religious events, during the school day on school property, after developing a personal one-on-one relationship with those students.

“No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne to Thompson. “The district may not allow its schools to be used as recruiting grounds for churches during the school day.”

It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion, and allowing outside adults to promote religious events to a student through a district-sponsored mentorship program gives the appearance that the district endorses not only the event, but that specific religious viewpoint.

FFRF also pointed out that it is inappropriate to encourage a one-on-one relationship between students and outside adults when the district is aware that the adult has an ulterior motive to expose them to Christian proselytization, regardless of whether parental permission is required. Just as it would be wrong to allow teachers to use class time to encourage students to attend a particular worship service — permission slips or not — it is wrong to invite outside adults to do so.

The district responded to FFRF this week, thanking the state-church watchdog for bringing the issue to the district’s attention. FFRF was assured that the violation would not recur.

“The district is updating its own administrative procedures to ensure that all volunteer mentors are informed that they must refrain from praying or proselytizing while at school, including encouraging students to attend religious events,” a legal representative of the district informed FFRF.

FFRF is commending the district for taking corrective action.

“We’re pleased that the district has taken the appropriate steps to protect its most vulnerable students,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Public schools have a legal obligation to stay separate from religion, and elementary school students are young and impressionable to social pressure by adults.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members across the country, including more than 1,000 members in Illinois and a Chicago-area chapter. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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