Humanist group threatens to sue Robbinsdale schools over student trips to church

Robbinsdale schools is being accused of violating the Establishment Clause by sending students to this church.

Robbinsdale schools is being accused of violating the Establishment Clause by sending students to this church.

-- Update at bottom --

The D.C.-based American Humanist Association is threatening to sue Robbinsdale Area Schools and the district's engineering and arts magnet school over field trips students have taken to the Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley the last two academic years.

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A letter sent yesterday to the district's executive director of academics and the School of Engineering and Arts' principal accuses administrators of dismissing a parent's objection to the trips, which involve students putting together "manna" packages to feed hungry people.

Calvary's website describes the church's mission as "to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ." Likewise, in its "Statement of Beliefs," Feed My Starving Children says, "We believe that there is one God, in three persons: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. He has directed us to help others in need."

"By sending public school children under your authority to a religious environment -- to work with a religious organization that is on a religious mission -- is a violation of the First Amendment principle of church-state separation," says the letter, written by a Humanist Association-affiliated legal center. "In fact, it is such an obvious violation that a parental complaint should not be necessary to bring it to your attention."

"Thus, it is even more egregious that, after the parental complaint was made last year, you did nothing to remedy the problem, but instead suggested that the parent was misguided for complaining," it continues. "We therefore seek immediate assurance that activities such as those complained of herein will cease immediately and not be continued in the future."

A voicemail left for the Robbinsdale Area Schools' spokesperson wasn't returned. (Update -- the district's response is at the bottom of this post.)

The letter from the Humanist Association's legal center acknowledges that trying to feed the hungry is a noble cause, but adds that "such good intentions... can be pursued in innumerable other ways that do not involve immersing the unsuspecting children into a theologically charged environment."

If the district doesn't provide written notification that it plans to cease the trips within two weeks, "The school may be sued in federal court for injunctive, declaratory, and monetary relief," the letter threatens.

:::: UPDATE ::::

The district sent City Pages the following statement this afternoon:

Robbinsdale Area Schools is aware of the concerns raised by the American Humanist Association regarding student participation in an optional service learning activity that was held a church last week. We take these concerns seriously and our administration has reviewed the situation.

We maintain that participating in this service learning activity with Feed My Starving Children does not violate the church-state separation law. The packing activity was located in the back room on the first floor and in the basement of the church and there was absolutely no proselytizing or religious activity involved.

Our district works to provide service learning opportunities to teach our students civic responsibility and provide opportunities for our students to become active, positive contributors to society. We believe that last week's activity upheld these values. We continue our commitment to providing our students with enriching service learning experiences and would never place them in a situation that violates their Constitutional rights.

We are reviewing the request from the American Humanist Association with our legal counsel to determine how we will respond to the letter.

-- Follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter at @atrupar. Got a tip? Drop him a line at [email protected]