A Colorado public high school is being operated like a private Christian institution, according to a new lawsuit by a former teacher. Robert Basevitz, a special education teacher, has filed suit against the Fremont RE-2 School District, its superintendent and the principal of Florence High School. He alleges that the school unconstitutionally integrates religion into daily official activities and that officials retaliated against him when he complained about the practice.
The crux of Basevitz’s complaint regards the Cowboy Church at the Crossroads, led by Pastor Randy Pfaff. Pfaff rents Florence High School facilities for Sunday services, which he may legally do under court precedent. But according to Basevitz, school officials do much more than rent space to the church. He says they regularly promote Pfaff’s church and its activities to students.
“The Church is advertised by two large signs that are hung on school property and are clearly visible to motorists” the complaint states. “According to its supporters and the Church itself, its aim is to ‘get church back into school.’”
Pfaff and his congregants hold a daily morning service in front of the school’s flagpole, and according to the lawsuit, the regular prayer rally has become a bit of an obstacle for individuals trying to enter the school via its front entrance.
“With the School’s support, Pastor Pfaff has led these services, ministering to the
School’s students and staff while holding a bible and using a public address system to preach his evangelical Christian messages,” the lawsuit asserts. It adds that the school often promotes these events through its public address system and flyers that list both Pfaff and Florence High School’s Principal Brian Schipper as contacts.
That’s just the beginning of a litany of possible constitutional violations.
Basevitz claims that Pfaff “routinely ministers to staff and students through the distribution of flyers.” The flyers reportedly quote Scripture, like John 3:16, promote creationism and once urged students to avoid “secular Halloween parties.”
The school also allows Pfaff to host Christian prayer in a room explicitly allocated to him. Worse yet, the prayer occurs during lunch periods, a custom students nicknamed “Jesus Pizza” due to its sectarian nature and the fact that Pfaff serves pizzas to students.
The pastor and his church also use the school to host a religious-themed “scholarship night” for graduating seniors. Basevitz claims that last year, the event capped a particularly sectarian school day.
“This is not one or two isolated incidents. On a single day, there were no less than five school-sponsored religious events,” his attorney, Paul Maxon, told the Denver Post. “That is a pervasive involvement with religion, which is illegal.”
The lawsuit specifically alleges that on May 15, 2014, Pfaff and school administrators hosted their customary morning flagpole service, which was followed by Jesus Pizza and an all-school assembly featuring a performance by a Christian rock band. Pfaff then distributed personalized Bibles to seniors at a special event in the evening.
Basevitz, who is Jewish, complains that as a result of the school’s “highly sectarian atmosphere” students referred to him with anti-Semitic insults. And after he objected to Pfaff’s activities in a meeting with school administrators, Basevitz faced retaliation almost immediately: He says Schipper and others told him to use the school’s side entrances if he did not wish to view Pfaff’s flagpole service, and another staff member told him his complaint was “unconscionable.”
The school district finally transferred Basevitz to a local elementary school, even though he had no experience in elementary education.
“The administration is essentially running a public school as a Christian school,” Maxon asserted. Schipper disagrees, and told 7News Denver, an ABC affiliate, that his administration doesn’t promote religion to students.
Pfaff, however, seems to have a different idea. In an interview with the Post, he refused to apologize for his activities at Florence High and said, “I don't believe the Constitution was meant to keep God out of the schools. That's absolutely absurd.”
“This nation was founded on Christianity,” he concluded.
Pfaff, of course, is deeply mistaken. The U.S. is a secular country with a secular government, and as arms of the government, public schools must also remain secular. This isn’t an ambiguous legal question; courts have ruled repeatedly that public schools cannot promote religion to students or otherwise coerce them into participating in religious activities. Yet that seems to be exactly what Schipper has permitted under his watch.
The Cowboy Church is entitled to rent the school on Sunday on the same basis as other community groups. Pfaff can even volunteer with its chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But he isn’t entitled to free advertising and promotion from the school administration.
If Basevitz’s allegations are accurate, the school district and Florence High School are doomed to lose this lawsuit. And they should.