Court rules school fundraiser violated First Amendment

Two schools in Highlands Ranch held a supply drive for a mission trip to Guatemala


The Douglas County School District violated the U.S. Constitution when it supported a fundraiser for a mission trip to Guatemala, according to a district court ruling filed July 17.

“In sum, this panoply of interactions between the District and religion rises to an unconstitutional level,” the ruling by U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson states. “Defendants supported an overtly Christian cause through financial donations, through sending emails and flyers to students' families, and through hosting the supply drive during school hours over the course of a school week.”

The case dates back to 2014, when Highlands Ranch High School and Cougar Run Elementary held a supply drive for a mission trip to Guatemala. In addition, a flier and email promoting the effort were sent to students and families at a number of schools in the district.

The students who went to Guatemala were part of the Highlands Ranch High School chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The trip was organized in conjunction with Adventures in Missions, whose website describes its vision, “that God would use us to raise up a generation of radically committed disciples of Jesus Christ.” A Highlands Ranch High English teacher accompanied the students on the trip.

The plaintiff in the case is listed as Jane Zoe, on behalf of her son, who was a student at Cougar Run in Highlands Ranch at the time. Zoe argued that her son was taunted for not believing in God after he declined to participate in the program. The plaintiff's real name was not available.

The American Humanist Association — a group that says it works to ensure the separation of church and state — and Zoe filed a lawsuit against the Douglas County School District on Oct. 22, 2014.

The lawsuit names as defendants the school district, the board of education, former Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen, Cougar Run Elementary Principal John Gutierrez and former HRHS Principal Jerry Goings.

The AHA said the district's program was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of and from religion.

Attorneys for the school district argued the fundraiser promoted “an increased awareness of and appreciation for poverty in a Latin American country, and a feeling of pride that (DCSD schools) sought to help poor children in an area of the world they were studying in class,” court documents state.

In her ruling, Jackson stated, “The very concept of a mission trip has religious intimations. The Guatemala mission trip was overtly religious.”

Zoe sought "nominal damages," according to court documents. According to the Cornell University Legal Information Institute, this is a term used when a judge or jury finds in favor of one party to a lawsuit, often because a law requires them to do so, but concludes that no real harm was done and therefore awards a very small amount of money.

The court awards Zoe reasonable costs and attorney's fees, according to court documents.


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