Aug 06, 2020

An Arizona public school district has apologized to faculty and staff for turning a district-sponsored staff event into a Christian worship service. The apologies, issued by the Winslow Unified School District #1 governing board and Superintendent Kathryn Zanin on Aug. 5, came a day after Americans United for Separation of Church and State had demanded them on behalf of staff members whose religious freedom was violated.

More than a dozen staff members from the northeastern Arizona district 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, staffers 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.

Although the district has not yet directly responded to Americans United’s request that it apologize to staff and issue a guarantee that future district events will not include proselytization or other religious content, the district has posted apologies on its website and Facebook page. Zanin’s statement promised that “this will never happen again.”

Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Kenneth Upton issued the following statement:

“We applaud Winslow Unified’s educators, who understand their constitutional rights to religious freedom and bravely came forward when those rights were violated by their employer. This burden should not have been placed on them as they were already under the strain of preparing for a new school year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Americans United will hold district officials to their promise that Winslow Unified’s faculty and staff will not be proselytized or forced to participate in religious activities ever again.

“Public schools must be inclusive spaces that welcome and respect the diverse religious beliefs of all students and staff. The law is clear that school districts cannot sponsor or endorse any religious activities. It strains credulity to think that any public school official wouldn’t know they were crossing a line when inviting multiple faith leaders to preach at a district-sponsored event.

“This situation could have been easily avoided, especially since such obvious violations of church-state separation can embroil school districts in costly, prolonged court battles. We urge Winslow Unified, and all public school districts, to review their practices and ensure they’re protecting the religious freedom of all students and staff.”

Anyone who has questions about the religious-freedom rights of public school staff and students, or who would like to report a potential violation of those rights, should reach out to Americans United’s Legal Department here.

A copy of Americans United’s Aug. 4 letter to Winslow Unified School District #1 is available here. It 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.

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.

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