Multiple locations on district campuses were available, but GUHSD chose to use church instead, ECM research reveals
By Miriam Raftery
Jeremy Los contributed research for this report
February 18, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a national nonprofit organization, says that it’s “problematic” and likely unconstitutional for the Grossmont Union High School District to host a school event at Sonrise Church, a fundamentalist place of worship in Santee.
The dispute arose after the GUHSD co-hosted an event with the Southern California Juvenile Officers Association and invited students to a program titled “Protecting Our Kids from Teen Relationship Violence” held at Sonrise Church on Tuesday evening, February 17th. Robo calls featuring the voice of Superintendent Ralf Swenson were made to parents and students urging them to attend. The invitation flyer was also featured on school websites.
Ray Lutz, founder of the watchdog group Citizens Oversight Project (COPS), sent a letter to Superintendent Swenson asking that the event be cancelled. “I request that the GUHSD discontinue sponsoring and promoting events held in churches, as this is in direct opposition to the notion of the separation of our secular state and religious institutions,” Lutz wrote. His letter observed that the church and its late minister, Don Hamer, “has a reputation for political activism.”
Notably Hamer formed the “Better Courts Now” organization aimed at electing judges with Judeo-Christian world views who supported pro-life and family values. Brian Jones, newly elected Assemblyman, is a minister and past staff member at Sonrise.
The district denied Lutz’s request and proceeded to hold the event Tuesday evening. In an e-mail sent to ECM, GUHSD spokesperson Catherine Martin affirmed the Superintendent’s support for the program, which she said was attended by about 150 people.
ECM sent a list of questions to the district. A reply from Martin addressed some, but ignored several others.
Martin stated, “The GUHSD Parent Involvement Committee regularly hosts forums for parents and students rotating locations throughout our District. In order for regularly scheduled student sports and drama programs to flourish, from time, to time, we use outside venues so as not to disrupt student activities.”
A check of calendars for venues at schools within the district, however, showed at least two sites available on the evening of the event in question. El Capitan’s gymnasium in Lakeside and West Hills performing arts center in Santee were both listed as empty. In addition, Santana High School’s gymnasium in Santee, while booked on Tuesday evening, was available on other nights the same week. [Update 2/18/11 9:30 a.m.: A West Hills employee has since indicated that a practice was being held in the theatre; the practice was not listed on the school calendar and ended at 7 p.m.]
Martin's responses to ECM's inquiries failed to answer several key questions raised, including whether any effort was made to find a non-religious venue. She also did not respond to a question asking whether religious symbols were covered during the event.
Failure to do both of those steps would make the event a violation of the U.S. Constitution, according to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSC).
On its site, AUSC has a statement indicating that ”a public school may hold school activities in a religious building, if at all, only if the venue is effectively secularized so as not to associate the school with religion. That generally means that religious iconography (e.g., religious artwork or symbols) and texts msut be covered or removed " Further, AU indicates that a federal judge has held that "Any constitutional violations will be compounded if there is a suitable secular location where the event could have been held instead.”
Ron Nehring, Chairman of the California Republican Party and a former trustee on the GUHSD Board, ridiculed Lutz's letter to Swenson in a post on the conservative blog site San Diego Rostra. "I’ve seen a lot of tricks used by candidates over the years to try to keep their name in the paper in between suicide-runs for political office," Nehring said of Lutz, a prior Democratic Congressional candidate, "but this one makes clear he’s not exactly ready for prime time."
Ready for prime-time politics or not, Lutz appears to have some sound legal basis for his argument in this instance.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has filed two lawsuits against school districts holding graduation ceremonies in churches. In one case, a federal judge ruled that it is always unconstitutional for a public high school to hold its graduation ceremony in a church, even if no religious symbols are visible. But in the second case, a federal judge ruled against AU. Both cases are now on appeal.
Rob Boston, spokesman for AUSC, told ECM today that the GUHSD’s event is “certainly problematic. A public school’s first duty is to make sure that every member of the community feels welcome at its events. When they hold events at an evangelical church that dabbles in right-wing politics, it is going to alienate some families.” He added that if a church is also known for anti-gay activism, it could also alienate gay students and their families.
An AUSC article titled “The Wall of Separation” notes that Hamer was “prominent in the battle to end same-sex marriage.”
Martin defended the District’s action, insisting that no violation of the Constitution occurred because “use of the building does not adopt the beliefs of the congregation.” She said that under California law, “a church group has the right to use school facilities when they are not in use.” She maintains that the District’s use of church space therefore should also be allowable.
Martin cites Lemon v. Kurtzman , a case brought by a man named Lemon and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, the U.S. Supreme court held that it was unconstitutional for the state of Pennsylvania to pay salaries of teachers in religious schools. The Court established a three-pronged “Lemon test” for determining whether a law violated the establishment of religion clause. Under the test, a school’s action must 1) have a secular legislative purpose; 2)not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion; and 3)not result in an “excessive government entanglement” of religion.
Martin said the school district’s use of a church building for a secular purpose “does not violate the Lemon test and does not violate the separation of church and state” since the purpose was for “parking and seating space.”
She did not address why the District opted against using non-religious parking and seating space readily available at its own campuses.
ECM asked Martin to document how many meetings on church properties have been held by the District in the past two years. She said she would research the matter and get back to ECM.
Martin failed to respond to another question on our list, which asked if the District would consider holding meetings in non-Christian worship places, such as a mosque or synagogue.
Boston said he would argue that Tuesday night’s program “is almost mandatory by default. People want to be there at these community events where information is dispensed.” Thus the District “should be open to everyone and they should be bending over backwards to get people to come, not holding them in places that will drive people away.”
Boston expressed skepticism over motives in a District where the school board is dominated by conservative Christians. “Certainly in the past, we have seen boards dominated by religious right activists at some point try to infuse their version of Christianity into the schools,” he said. Boston urged the public to “speak out and get active and make their views known.” He added that going to court can often be avoided in this manner.
With right-wing school boards and districts, Boston concluded, "A lot of times, they will act like bullies until someone stands up to them.”