The Cowboy Church of the Crossroads may no longer meet in a public high school, according to the terms of a new settlement. ABC 7 reports that a federal court issued a consent decree that requires Florence, Co.,-based church to find a new home.
The settlement ends a legal battle between the Fremont RE-2 School District and a former teacher over Florence High School’s alleged promotion of the church.
According to Robert Basevitz, Florence administrators had allowed the church to rent its facilities on Sunday and granted its pastor, Randy Pfaff, broad access to students during the school day.
In his complaint, Basevitz described what amounts to a laundry list of constitutional violations. School administrators distributed the church’s literature to students and advertised its events over an official public address system. Pfaff was allowed to use a classroom during the lunch hour to host something students called “Jesus Pizza.” The content, as you can likely gather from the name, was exclusively religious, and offered pizza as an incentive to participate.
The school even allowed the pastor and his flock to host a daily prayer circle in front of its entrance. The circle became so large, Basevitz alleged, that it eventually blocked the school’s entrance.
Basevitz, who is Jewish, finally had enough and complained to school administrators – only to be reassigned to a local elementary school. In response, he filed suit, arguing that the school had unconstitutionally entangled religion with its responsibility to educate.
“The administration is essentially running a public school as a Christian school,” his attorney, Paul Maxon, told press at the time.
But no longer.
The settlement is effectively a total loss for Pfaff and his allies at Florence High. In addition to casting Cowboy Church to the winds, it requires a district-wide ban on school sponsored religious displays. Faculty and staff may no longer lead students in prayer, set out prayer request boxes or distribute religious literature. Schools must also stop sponsoring religious organizations.
And the prayer circle? It’s history. The settlement also includes a district-wide ban on ceremonies of any kind large enough to obstruct school entrances.
Pfaff says his church has already located a new home, but he’s still incensed by the settlement.
“To say that we obstructed peoples view or walk in, is just not true,” he said. “This has everything to do with that Bible and that’s what it is.”
He added, “To think that this man didn't want us in there just because we’re a church, doesn't seem right to me.”
But that’s a rather selective reading of the situation. The problem isn’t that Cowboy Church is a church; it’s that school administrators showed it preferential treatment.
Maxon put it well in statements to press. “The separation of church and state is one of the most important ways that the Constitution protects our liberty. This settlement is a victory for the idea that schools are for educating, and religious decisions are for families, not governments,” he said.
That distinction between private and government spheres has long been recognized by the courts. Although it’s legal for churches to rent school facilities for use after hours, courts have clearly, consistently ruled that schools may not grant churches special privileges or lead students in school-sponsored religious displays. Schools are legally bound to remain secular; religious development is uniquely the responsibility of a child’s family.
Florence High repeatedly crossed that red line and in the process, they created a hostile environment for religious minorities, including Basevitz.
This settlement is the correct outcome. No public school should force its staff and students to wade through a congregation on their way to class.