A Nebraska religious group that holds evangelistic rallies during the school day in public schools may be held legally liable for violating the Constitution, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In a letter today, Americans United warned officials of the Todd Becker Foundation that they can be held responsible for infringing on the religious neutrality of public schools and the religious liberty rights of students.
The Kearney, Neb.-based organization sponsors presentations that include sermons and religious music, as well as invitations to convert to fundamentalist Christianity. According to its Web site, the foundation’s “sole purpose” is “to draw young people into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ.”
The Foundation claims to have put on presentations at 150 schools across the Midwest. The events are ostensibly about the dangers of drunk driving, but the program content usually focuses heavily on religious conversion.
Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “Families, not public school officials or co-conspirator evangelistic groups, should make decisions about children’s religious instruction. This is the clear command of the U.S. Constitution.
“I am surprised and disappointed that irresponsible school officials and pushy proselytizers are joining forces to violate the rights of students and their parents,” Lynn continued. “If this pattern persists, a lawsuit is almost certain. The Supreme Court ordered public schools not to meddle in religion decades ago.”
In its May 4 letter to the foundation, Americans United asserted, “It is clear that a public school violates the Constitution when it allows an outside group to give religious presentations at a school event. It is equally clear that private entities face liability when they join with government in bringing about those constitutional violations.”
AU attorneys warned that future foundation presentations in public schools must be “wholly secular.”
“If you choose not to heed this request,” the letter notes, “we hereby put you on notice that you can be held legally liable to the same extent as public school officials.”
The Americans United letter was signed by AU Legal Counsel Ayesha N. Khan and AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith.