September 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Americans United attorneys last month demanded that an Arizona public school district formally apologize to faculty and staff for turning a district-sponsored, back-to-school staff event into a Christian worship service.

Several teachers and staff members contacted Americans United after the July 30 event at Winslow Unified School District #1. Billed as a “Back to School Kick Off,” the event featured eight Christian pastors who spoke for 90 minutes.

During the event, staff members were subjected to Bible quotes, Christian prayers, requests that participants raise their hands to show their belief in God and pronouncements that God would protect them from COVID-19.

In an Aug. 4 letter to Superintendent Kathryn Zanin and the Winslow Unified School Board, Americans United explained that incorporating religion into a district-sponsored event is unconstitutional and violates the religious-freedom rights of district employees. 

 “The Winslow Unified School District has both the legal and moral obligation to respect the beliefs of all students, staff members, and their families,” observed AU’s letter. “The Back to School Kick Off did just the opposite. We therefore demand that you immediately issue an apology to all district staff and that you agree in writing that the District, its schools, and its school officials will not incorporate religious content into future school activities.”

AU’s letter was signed by Senior Litigation Counsel Kenneth Upton, Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Staff Attorney Ian Smith.

On Aug. 5, both Zanin and the board issued formal apologies.

“We believe that our staff has the freedom to choose their own ideology and life principles,” read the board’s letter. “The Governing Board cares about the well-being of each and every employee. We realize that the kick-off meeting was inappropriate.”