Aug 04, 2020

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today 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. Americans United also requested a guarantee from the district that future staff events will not include proselytization or other religious content.

More than a dozen staff members from Winslow Unified School District #1 in northeastern Arizona contacted Americans United after they participated in a July 30 “Back to School Kick Off” event at which the district invited eight Christian pastors to speak. For an hour and a half, 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. 

Because the law on this subject makes it absolutely clear that the inclusion of religious content is unconstitutional, AU can only conclude that the violation of employees’ religious freedom was intentional. 

“Public schools must be inclusive spaces that welcome and respect the diverse religious beliefs of all students and staff. For a public school district to incorporate religious activities into an official district event is a clear violation of the Constitution,” said Kenneth Upton, Senior Litigation Counsel for Americans United. “Our country’s educators are already under tremendous pressure as they begin an unprecedented new school year amid the coronavirus pandemic. That stress should not be compounded by requiring employees to participate in religious activities and proselytization at work.”

AU’s letter to Winslow Unified School District #1 was signed by Upton, Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Staff Attorney Ian Smith. They requested confirmation within 14 days of the district’s apology to staff and a guarantee that religious content will not be included in future district-sponsored programs.

A copy of AU’s letter is available here.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the nonprofit organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.