Douglas County Schools

Court says parent of Douglas County student can sue district

Lawsuit contends district violated Establishment Clause of the First Amendment


The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled June 20 that a woman identified in court documents as Jane Zoe can sue the Douglas County School District for an incident in which a teacher distributed materials for a Christian group.

The case revolved around the promotion at two schools of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes mission trip and supply drive to aid people in Guatemala.

The incident took place in 2014 at Highlands Ranch High School and Cougar Run Elementary, where a supply drive was held. In addition, a flier and email promoting the effort were sent to students and families at a number of schools in the district.

In January 2016, a district court said Zoe and three other plaintiffs lacked legal standing to sue. The appeals court disagreed.

The plaintiffs in the case are identified in court documents as John Doe, Jack and Jill Roe - who have two children attending school in the district - and Jane Zoe, on behalf of her son, who was a student at Cougar Run in Highlands Ranch at the time.

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. Fagen and Goings no longer work for the district.

The American Humanist Association - a group that says it works to ensure the separation of church and state - filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs on Oct. 22, 2014.

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.

Zoe argued that her son was taunted for not believing in God after he declined to participate in the program, which the AHA said took place during school hours. The plaintiffs' real names were not available.

The appeals court agreed that the three other parents lacked standing because they were not directly affected by the program.

"Although we have no doubt that plaintiffs are genuinely and fervently committed to righting what they view as an injustice, 'a generalized grievance, no matter how sincere, is insufficient to confer standing,' " the opinion stated.

"The sole exception is plaintiff Jane Zoe," the opinion stated. "She contends that DCSD violated the Establishment Clause when school officials announced they were 'partnering' with a Christian student group and solicited her and her son for donations to a 'mission trip.' The district court held that because Zoe's contacts with the challenged actions were not conspicuous or constant, she did not suffer an injury for standing purposes."

Zoe is seeking "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 Tenth Circuit issued a procedural ruling that one of our parents can try again to bring her lawsuit in the trial court. It was not a ruling on the merits, and no judgment has been issued against the School District," The Douglas County School District said in a statement. "We take very seriously the obligations imposed on us by the First Amendment, and continue to examine the Court's opinion and its consequences. We stand by our students who choose to freely exercise their religious rights, but are aware of the duties imposed on the School District and its employees by the Constitution's Establishment Clause."


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