Teacher's lawsuit says public Florence High School is promoting Christianity to students

Teacher complained & was moved to other school

FLORENCE, Colo. - Scripture on the projection screen, signs out front promoting Sunday church services and prayer circles around the flag pole. All things you might expect to see at church. But this isn't a church, it's a public high school.

"The administration is essentially running a public school as a Christian school," said employment attorney Paul Maxon.

Maxon is the attorney representing a Jewish teacher, Robert Basevitz, who has filed a lawsuit against Fremont RE-2 School District for religious discrimination. The also suit names as defendants, Superintendent Rhonda Vendetti and Florence High School Principal Brian Schipper, both as individuals and district administrators.

 

"On a single day last year, there were no fewer than five Evangelical activities sponsored by the school," Maxon said.

According to the lawsuit filed in Denver federal court Tuesday, the school system is violating the First Amendment to the Constitution which prohibits government establishment of religion.

The suit alleges clear civil rights violations and says the school has a pervasive culture of using state education funding to promote Christianity over all other religions.

"Is Florence High School acting more like a religious institution?" asked 7NEWS reporter Russell Haythorn.

"I think it is -- when the principal is participating in assemblies that pass out bibles to students, it sends a message to the faculty and to the students that there's an official religion at the school," Maxon said.

Florence High School principal Brian Schipper couldn't disagree more.

"We're a school. We educate kids," said Schipper. "We educate kids in every academic area and social area and life area. Religion's not in our curriculum anywhere."

But Maxon argues it is. The lawsuit alleges there are regular Christian meetings during lunch inside the school, which students have nicknamed "Jesus Pizza."

"The fact that there's a humorous nickname doesn't mean it's not serious," said Maxon. "It's a serious matter when the Bill of Rights is violated. Some cases have gray areas about what's illegal and not illegal. This case doesn't have much of that."

Cowboy Church at Crossroads has held Sunday church services in the school cafeteria since at least 2012, the church website says. The principal defends this practice, noting that the church pays rent to the school district.

According the lawsuit, Cowboy Church's pastor, Randy Pfaff, has the run of the school, using the public address system to "preach his evangelical Christian messages."

"With the support of the school's staff, including Principal Schipper, Pastor Pfaff and the Church distribute" flyers throughout the school that promote prayer meetings and other Christian events during school hours, the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, Pastor Pfaff says the "mission work" of the church is The Fellowship of Christian Huskies, a Florence High student group he founded in 2011. The Fellowship describes itself as a "religious organization" that aims to "let God back in our schools" and to "[bring] others to a saving knowledge of Jesus."

The Fellowship's adult sponsors include Principal Schipper and five high school staff members, the lawsuit says.

Schipper says any student organization is allowed to meet on campus for anything, including morning prayer and lunchtime bible studies.

"During the morning prayer they just stand there and kids come over, kids go by, they say, 'Good morning' to kids,'" Schipper said. "It doesn't get in the way of anybody getting into school. They make a point to stay out of the way of everybody, actually."

Basevitz eventually spoke up.

Last December, he met with Principal Schipper and Superintendent Vendetti to formally complain about "the Church's ubiquitous presence at Florence High School."

The administrators told the school's only Jewish employee that when the church was holding prayer ceremonies outside the school's front door, he could enter and exit the school through side doors.

"In an apparent attempt to ostracize [Basevitz], Defendants informed staff and students of Mr. Basevitz’s complaint and his Jewish heritage," the lawsuit states. "On January 9, 2015, [Basevitz] overheard a student saying, "we can't do Jesus Pizza because Mr. B. is Jewish."

"Shortly thereafter, Pastor Pfaff posted on the Fellowship of Christian Huskies Facebook page, "The enemy always fights the hardest when he knows God has something great in store,"  the lawsuit states.

"When he complained about these activities, which are clearly illegal, he was shown the door, and transferred to a different school," Maxon said.

The principal remains firm -- all beliefs are welcome here.

"We're preparing kids to be good, productive people when they walk out of here. We do great things every day," he said.

 

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