Teacher sues Colorado school for violating Constitution by promoting religion

Students attend a prayer ceremony at Florence High School in Florence, Colorado.(Facebook/Fellowship of Christian Huskies)

A Jewish teacher has sued the school district and public high school in Florence, Colorado, for promoting religion in the school, saying it violates the separation of church and state.

Robert Basevitz filed the lawsuit in the US District Court of Colorado against Fremont RE-2 School District Superintendent Rhonda Vendetti and Principal Brian Schipper of Florence High School, where Basevitz used to teach until he was transferred to another school.

Basevitz accused Florence High School of operating "largely to promote the evangelical Christian ideals of The Cowboy Church at Crossroads," which conducts religious activities in school campus.

He said these activities are in violation of the "Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as the defendants are acting under color of law as defined under 42 USC 1983."

"Plaintiff asks that defendants' actions be declared unconstitutional and illegal, and that this court enjoin them from engaging in any further such activity," the lawsuit said.

Basevitz is protesting against the "church's ubiquitous presence" in the high school, which includes daily morning prayer in front of the school at the flagpole.

"Either Pastor (Randy) Pfaff or another member of the church has been present for this ceremony every day for the last three years. With the school's support, Pastor Pfaff has led these services, ministering to the school's students and staff while holding a Bible and using a public address system to preach his evangelical Christian messages," he said.

In one instance, he said in the lawsuit, he saw the school staff using the public address system to promote a prayer ceremony led by Pfaff, which was to be held on Sept. 24, 2014, "the day on which Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish new year – begins."

On the day of the prayer ceremony, Basevitz said he "complained to Principal Schipper that this sectarian service was illegal, but no action was taken in response."

Last Dec. 18, Basevitz met with Schipper and Vendetti "to formally complain about the church's ubiquitous presence at Florence High School." He was told that during prayer ceremonies, he could use the school's side entrances.

Basevitz said last Jan. 20, he was told by Schipper that he would be transferred to the Penrose Elementary School without "a written reason for its decision."

In the lawsuit, Basevitz said the defendants' actions "demonstrate not only the defendants' endorsement of religious beliefs over non-religious, but the endorsement of Christianity over other faiths and other religious beliefs."

"The defendants' actions are designed to, and have the effect of showing favoritism toward religion, and in particular Christianity, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution," the lawsuit stated.

He asked the court to declare as unconstitutional the defendants' actions that allegedly promote and endorse religious activities at the high school, including sponsoring Christian prayer Cowboy Church at Crossroads; distributing distributing bibles to students; proselytizing to and presenting scripture to students and staff; hosting school events at Christian locations; and hosting evangelical Christian groups.