Principal admits error in Christian toy drive

Charter cuts ties after parent alerts humanist group


While upset Christian parents and students rallied in support of SkyView Academy’s holiday gift drive, the school’s principal admitted the charter school erred in its relationship with the evangelical Christian program.

The K-12 public school halted its part in the annual event after the American Humanist Association (AHA) challenged its legality at a parent’s behest. Principal Mike Munier wrote in a private email copied to 9News reporter Kyle Clark that “the best attorneys in the land” said the school had “an indefensible case due to a mistake on our part.”

The public school’s participation in a Christian proselytizing organization, Operation Christmas Child, runs counter to the constitutional separation of church and state.

The controversy originated when a SkyView parent contacted the AHA about the school’s alleged promotion of student participation in the program. An AHA attorney notified the Highlands Ranch K-12 charter school that it “must immediately suspend its unconstitutional participation in Operation Christmas Child.”

Humanists of Colorado president Kimberly Saviano said the AHA does not get involved in such cases unless it is asked to do so.

“We’re being characterized as wanting to step on kittens and trying to cancel Christmas, and that’s not the case at all,” she said. “The separation of church and state is something we have to be vigilant about all the time.

“I know their hearts are in the right place. They want to see kids that otherwise wouldn’t get gifts get them. It’s just the fact it’s not meant for an in-school program.”

Operation Christmas Child/Samaritan’s Purse, led by evangelist Billy Graham’s son Franklin, “works with local churches and ministry partners to deliver the gifts and share the life-changing Good News of Jesus Christ,” according to its website.

Through Operation Christmas Child, boxes of toys are delivered to impoverished children internationally. While the boxes are offered unconditionally, often the children who receive them are “soon after” invited to participate in a discipleship program that “teaches children to become faithful followers of Jesus Christ.”

Principal Munier’s email was in response to a message from a parent upset about the program’s discontinuation; the parent copied the SkyView board and 9News’ Clark; Munier apparently replied to all. Munier accused the parent of being “grossly misinformed about the process,” adding that attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom said the school’s case was “indefensible.”

Clark provided a copy of the email to Colorado Community Media, after school leaders criticized 9News’ story about the email.

“The story on 9News was taken out of context,” SkyView Academy board president Lorrie Grove wrote in an email to Colorado Community Media. “Mr. Munier was referring to the fact that the SkyView Academy Board will work to create a clear policy around student-led service projects that allow students freedom while adhering to the law.”

Shortly after the emails were exchanged on Nov. 20, Christian parents, students and other community members gathered outside the school to rally and collect toys. In a show of support, members of local churches also came to hold signs.

Parent Kendal Unruh, who helped organize the rally, said it was called in support of religious liberties. She said she felt SkyView was bullied by the AHA.

“But they happened to pick a school where there’s a lot of people of faith that are going to push back,” she said. “For some reason, Christians have become fair game to be discriminated against and bullied. I am not threatened by religious expression from any other denomination, including atheist. All we’re asking for is equal access.”

Students held signs, some reading: “AHA punishing the poor” and “Don’t take toys from kids.”

In contrast to Munier’s email, Grove said attorneys told the school’s directors “it was constitutional to allow our students to participate in it, as long as the school wasn’t promoting religion.”

“This is a student-led project, and that’s a very important distinction,” she said. “This is not part of the SkyView curriculum. It’s not mandatory. The school certainly wasn’t driving this.”

However, Operation Christmas Child is listed on the school’s website as its December learning service project, overseen by three SkyView teachers.

“We did an overhaul on our service project this year to make it more in line with what the founders and board envisioned,” Grove said in a separate interview with CCM conducted earlier this month. “It was very targeted and intentional. We are doing something every month and by the end of the school year every child at the school will participate in a service learning project.”

SkyView junior Carly Rodrigeuz, who helped fellow student Michaela VanSant start the holiday gift program, summed up the issue as an educational experience.

“I think a lot of learning has come from this,” she said. “We’re figuring out how we can be the most supportive we can be without crossing the lines.”

VanSant watched Nov. 20 as car after car pulled up to the rally site, the drivers honking support and dropping off toy-filled boxes.

“It was very disappointing,” Rodriguez said of the controversy. “But I understand where the school is coming from.

“This is super exciting; the whole community is coming out and supporting us.”

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