July/August 2015 Church & State | People & Events

A Colorado public high school is being operated like a private Christian institution, a new lawsuit filed by a former teacher there alleges.

Robert Basevitz, a special education instructor, has filed suit against the Fremont RE-2 School District, its superintendent and the principal of Florence High School. Basevitz alleged that the school unconstitutionally integrates religion into daily 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 merely rent space to the church. He alleges that 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” Basevitz’s legal 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 Principal Brian Schipper as contacts.

Basevitz also claimed that Pfaff “routinely ministers to staff and students through the distribution of flyers.” The flyers reportedly quote Bible verses, promote creationism and once urged students to avoid “secular Halloween parties.”

The school even allows Pfaff to host Christian prayer in a room that is set aside for him. The prayer occurs during lunch periods, a custom students have reportedly nicknamed “Jesus Pizza” due to its sectarian nature and the fact that Pfaff serves pizzas to youngsters.

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,” Basevitz’s attorney, Paul Maxon, told the Denver Post. “That is a pervasive involvement with religion, which is illegal.”

The Basevitz v. Fremont RE-2 School District 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, complained 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.