A federal judge has ruled that the Joplin (Mo.) district violated students' First Amendment rights in 2015 when it took seventh- and eighth-graders on a field trip to a Christian-themed sports complex.
The Joplin Globe reports the court ruled in favor of the American Humanist Association, which sued the district on behalf of a parent of two students. The association had argued that the field trips to Victory Ministry and Sports Complex violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Permission slips were sent home to parents to inform them that "their children may be invited to Bible studies and local churches while at Victory," the lawsuit said. The association argued that the permission slip "required parents to allow their child to participate in worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith."
The school district asserted that the trip served a secular purpose — rewarding students for positive standardized test scores and good behavior.
But U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Harpool concluded in a 23-page summary judgment that some students could "feel coerced by the Joplin District’s field trips, into either not attending the events, or subjecting themselves to religious beliefs contrary to their family’s teaching."
"The Court finds the relationship between Joplin District and Victory, and in particular the seventh and eighth grade field trips...to be an impermissible entanglement of government, government funding, and government authority with a particular religion and religious message," Harpool said in its ruling.
The relationship between a public school district and a religious entity was a clear violation of the First Amendment.
"The frequency, 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," the judge said.
David Niose, Legal Director for the American Humanist Association, called the ruling a victory for the Constitution.
“The school district has been funneling money and impressionable students to a religious ministry that is in the business of luring children to Christianity," Niose says, "and we’re glad that the court could see that this is clearly unconstitutional activity.”
The judge has not yet imposed a final judgment and order, so it is not clear whether any sanctions or penalties will be imposed on the district.