Thursday, March 09, 2017
Judge rules against Joplin R-8 on Victory Ministries lawsuit, sex education program in jeopardy
Judge Douglas Harpool's decision prohibits further field trips to Victory or other religious venues. The district will have to pay nominal damages to the plaintiff, Jane Doe and her children, plus attorney fees, expenses and costs.
The ruling also seems to put the district's sex education program, which is operated by the Christian organization Life Choices and conducted at Victory Ministries, in jeopardy.
Harpool's ruling said the district was essentially promoting religion with its various dealings with Victory Ministries and criticized former Superintendent C. J. Huff and Joplin High School Principal Brandon Eggleston (formerly North Middle School principal) for their actions after concerns about Victory's permission slips had been brought to their attention prior to the field trip.
Harpool noted that Victory had agreed to remove a paragraph that allowed its employees to proselytize, but Huff and Eggleston never sent the revised permission slips.
Superintendent Huff and Principal Eggleston inexplicably chose not to communicate that information to parents and students. That decision alone raises serious concerns regarding the purpose and motivation of school district officials. It is puzzling to this Court that school officials chose not to communicate that message to parents.
The ruling also criticized Huff and Eggleston's decision to leave in a portion of the agreement that allowed Victory to use students' names and photos to promote itself.
The November 16, 2015 revised waiver and release form deletes paragraph 6 (which allowed proselytizing). However, it retains paragraph 10 of the earlier release form which requires participants to grant permission for Victory to use the likenesses of the participants for advertising, trade, or any other purpose whatsoever. Victory did, in fact, use photos of school events and the Joplin District’s school buses in its advertising and marketing. A public school student cannot be required to allow his or her likeness to be used in advertising for a Christian ministry in order to take advantage of opportunities sponsored by public schools funded by public tax money.
While the Constitution doesn't prohibit occasional use of religious facilities for a social function, Harpool wrote, "Here, the frequencies, consistency, and extent of the relationship between the Joplin District and Victory goes well beyond occasional or incidental use and impermissibly entangles the Joplin District with religion." This would be true even without the problems with the permission slips, he added.
The district's sex education program also violated the Establishment Clause, Harpool ruled. "While it is not the purpose of this court to control, dictate, or write the curriculum of the Joplin District, it is the responsibility of this court to protect the constitutional separation of church and state.
"The fact that the Joplin School District uses public tax money to transport students to a Christian facility to be taught a sex education 'curriculum' by representatives of a Christian organization rather than public school teachers, is of grave concern."
Background of the lawsuit
While the lawsuit began after a field trip provided to North students as a reward for their work on the MAP tests, it developed into more, as an entangling web of connections between the district and Victory Ministries was developed through discovery.
From the opinion:
Doe Child I was eligible to attend the North Middle School eighth grade field trip rewarding students for effort on the MAP test.
However, when he presented the waiver to his mother, and discussed it with her, both agreed he should not attend due to the religious nature and beliefs of Victory. Doe Child I’s mother visited the Victory website and learned more about its unambiguous Christian mission and purpose. She objected to signing a waiver allowing her child to be proselytized on a school trip. She did not want her child to be exposed to Christian indoctrination, including Christian Bible study and messages.
Another Doe child was taken to Victory Ministries for sex education classes.
In March 2015 at Victory, Doe Child III was exposed to sex education instruction conducted by employees of the Christian-based organization, Life Choices, rather than public school teachers. The instruction was abstinence only. Prior to the trip, the Doe Child’s mother had disallowed her children from participating in sex education class at North Middle School when she learned that Life Choices was instructing the class, rather than public school teachers.
The relationship between Joplin R-8 and Victory
The opinion describes how the field trip came about and the permission slips that brought a warning from an attorney for the American Humanist Association that a lawsuit would be filed if the trip took place.
The permission slips not only allowed Victory employees to present religious messages to the students, but also gave Victory complete rights to use any photos taken of the children in its promotional materials.
From the opinion:
At some time prior to the field trip, a letter was forwarded to the Joplin District by Victory suggesting use of its facility as a venue for school trips. The letter included fliers that included the Victory logo with the Christian cross and the word “ministry.” Also included in one of the fliers was a testimonial from a Joplin High School official describing past Joplin High School events at Victory.
Defendant Eggleston visited Victory’s recreational facility at least twice before the North Middle School field trip. The first time he visited was when it was being operated by Bridge Ministries, and the second time was in May 2014 for a district-wide secretaries’ luncheon the school district hosted at the facility.
The North Middle School field trips to Victory were specifically approved by Jason Cravens, the Joplin District’s Executive Director of Secondary Education, and by then Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Huff.
On or about May 4, 2015, North Middle School sent home permission slips and waivers with students for parents to sign as a requirement to attend the trip. The waiver was stapled to the permission slip. Parents were required to sign the waiver in order for their child to attend the field trip at its facility. It was a Victory requirement.
Paragraph 6 of the March 17, 2015 waiver and release form reads: ¶ 6. We (I) understand that the officers, officials, agents, other participants and employees of Victory Ministry and Sports Complex may be inviting me or (my) our students to Bible studies and local churches of the Christian faith. While at any Victory Ministry and Sports Complex location or event (my) our student(s) has permission to participate in worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith.
Defendant Eggleston read the waiver and release form prior to the field trip. Also included in the waiver and release form was Paragraph 10, which reads as follows: ¶ 10. We (I) hereby grant Victory Ministry and Sports Complex the absolute right and permission to copyright and use, re-use, publish, and republish photographic portraits, pictures and/or videos of me and/or our (my) child or in which I and/or our (my) child may be included in whole or in part, or composite or distorted in character or form, without restriction as to changes or alterations, in conjunction with our (my) child’s own or fictitious name, made through/for any medium for use in any art, advertising, trade, or any other public purpose whatsoever. I also consent to the use of any material printed in conjunction therewith. I hereby waive any right that I or the minor may have to inspect or approve the finished product or products or the advertising copy of printed matter that may be used in connection therewith or the use to which it may be applied.
Prior to the field trip, the Joplin District received inquiries questioning the propriety of the trip. Based on these complaints, Defendant Eggleston e-mailed then Superintendent Huff noting that the trip was not mandatory and no child was required to attend.
Additionally, Defendant Eggleston contacted the Victory staff and was assured there would be no “preaching” to the students. When Superintendent Huff was contacted by the American Humanist Association expressing concerns that the trip would violate the Establishment Clause, he acknowledged that the permission slip was inappropriately worded but denied the trip violated the Establishment Clause.
Superintendent Huff was made aware that if the trip proceeded as scheduled, litigation would likely ensue. In response to the complaints, Principal Eggleston agreed that in the future, if the venue was to be used for trips, a request would be made to omit paragraph 6 from the Victory waiver and release form.
When Victory learned of parents’ concerns, they informed the Joplin District that parents could strike paragraph 6 from the waiver and release form if they so desired. However, Superintendent Huff, Defendant Eggleston, and the Joplin District determined not to advise parents of their option to strike out paragraph 6 of the waiver, and to “go on as it’s written.”
Defendant Eggleston met with the North Middle School faculty attending the trip, instructing them to monitor Victory employees to ensure no proselytization occurred. However, Victory staff present during the North Middle School field trips were not given instructions regarding proselytization.
While the North Middle School field trips were the events that precipitated this litigation, they are not the only examples of the Joplin District’s use of Victory facilities. The Court notes other schools within the Joplin District have also used Victory facilities on numerous occasions.
For example, the Joplin District regularly hosts high school excursions to Victory facilities for abstinence-only sex education titled “Battle of the Sexes” provided by Life Choices, a Christian-based organization.
The trips take place during school hours, and school buses take the students to the Victory facilities. The trip is considered part of the “curriculum” of the Joplin District. The adults who teach the Joplin High School students while at Victory are selected by the Connection Institute, the prevention services arm of Life Choices.
Life Choices programming held at Victory for Joplin High School students does not include information about contraception or abortion - they teach abstinence only. Battle of the Sexes is the incarnation of a program that started in 2010 by Melissa Winston at Life Choices called “Man Up” for boys and “My Life” for girls. Winston was previously Youth Development Coordinator for Life Choices Medical Clinic and Resource Center. Since November 2013, Winston has served as Director of Community Engagement for the Joplin District. The Man Up/My Life events have been held at Victory or its predecessor since 2010.
Approximately 800 Joplin High School students are transported to Victory during school hours and attend Battle of the Sexes Life Choices program each year. On March 11 and 12, 2014, Joplin High School took its junior class to Victory for a two-day Battle of the Sexes event. The event was held from 1:00 – 3:00 each afternoon and approximately 800 students attended.
On March 11, 2014, Victory posted information on its official Facebook page captioned “Victory Worship Sessions” describing the Joplin High School Battle of the Sexes event, along with four pictures from the event. One of the photos posted on the March 11 Facebook page shows a Joplin school bus parked in front of a large Victory banner.
On March 12, 2014, Victory posted a second message on its Facebook page, “Victory Worship Sessions,” about the JHS Battle of the Sexes event, along with four pictures. The post stated: Good Wednesday Morning! We started out this day with worship and prayer for our schools, community and nation...believing that God is in control and worthy to be praised! This morning’s session led by Joshua Bussey. God’s faithfulness endures forever! Once again, thank you Joplin School District for allowing us to pour into these students’ lives.
In addition, the Joplin High School regularly uses, and pays Victory for the use of Victory facilities for its cheerleading practices and “Fusion” events, which are school initiatives for seniors and juniors to support freshman students.
Two elementary schools in the Joplin District, Soaring Heights Elementary and Columbia Elementary, also took school children to Victory’s facilities for celebration field trips in May of 2015. Victory required parents of both schools to sign the waiver and release forms before their children could attend the event. A building use agreement, similar to the one executed for the North Middle School trip, was executed for each of the trips. The Joplin District also paid Victory for these trips, which took place during school hours.