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American Humanist Association, Inc. v. Douglas County School District Re-1

United States District Court, D. Colorado

July 17, 2018

AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION, INC., JANE ZOE, individually and as parent on behalf of a minor, Plaintiffs,
DOUGLAS COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT RE-1, DOUGLAS COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, ELIZABETH CELANIA-FAGEN, in her official capacity as Superintendent of Douglas County School District, JOHN GUTIERREZ, in his official capacity as Principal of Cougar Run Elementary School, and JERRY GOINGS, in his official capacity as Principal of Highlands Ranch High School, Defendants.


          R. Brooke Jackson United States District Judge

         This action is before the Court on remand from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals for the reasons set forth in American Humanist Association, Inc. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, 859 F.3d 1243 (10th Cir. 2017). The Court here addresses the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case, as it stands following the appellate decision, is brought by the American Humanist Association (“AHA”) and one of its members whose pseudonym is “Jane Zoe.” The AHA is a non-profit organization that promotes the “separation of church and state and the constitutional rights of humanists, atheists and other freethinkers.” ECF No. 1 at 5. Ms. Zoe's two children attend Cougar Run Elementary School in Douglas County, Colorado. Plaintiffs claim that defendants promote a culture of promoting the Christian religion in the Douglas County School District.

         The event that is the focus of the case vis-à-vis Ms. Zoe was a Guatemala mission trip in 2014. ECF No. 50 at 6-7. The mission trip was created by and for members of a district high school's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (“FCA”), a student club in which both students and teachers took part. ECF No. 58 at 13. The FCA planned the trip through an organization called Adventures in Missions (“AIM”), which plans Christian mission trips in both the United States and abroad. ECF No. 47 at 1. The stated goals of the mission trip were to “promote Christianity” and to “introduce [children] to the Bible.” ECF No. 47-23 at 89. Fourteen high school students and two teachers participated in the trip.

         Specifically as it relates to the Zoe children, in the spring semester of 2014, Cougar Run sixth-grade teacher Micki Benge volunteered to spearhead a supply drive to help fundraise for the mission trip. ECF No. 47 at 5. The supply drive was to last a week and take place during school hours. Id. As part of this effort, Ms. Benge printed flyers regarding the fundraiser which were sent home in students' “take home folders.” This flyer stated that the supply drive was “Sponsored by Cougar Run 6th Graders partnering with the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes)” and noted that “[t]his effort was born out of a desire for our 6th grade students to make real-world connections with their Latin American social studies curriculum.” ECF No.1-59. Ms. Zoe's son received one of these flyers and brought it home. ECF No. 1 at 35.

         In addition to the flyer, Ms. Zoe received an email from her son's preschool teacher, Camille Espinosa, encouraging participation in the supply drive. ECF No. 1-60. The email asked for supply donations for the trip and noted that “monetary donations are also welcome! Please make checks payable to Cougar Run Elementary.” Id. The email also stated “we are partnering with HRHS on this effort-specifically the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) organization” that “will be travelling to Guatemala over Spring Break to run camps for Guatemalan orphans.” Id. Cougar Run Principal Gutierrez also emailed “Cougar Run families” informing them that Cougar Run had “partnered with [FCA]” and asked the families to donate money to the supply drive. ECF No. 1-19.

         In response to an interrogatory, Ms. Zoe stated that her son “felt coerced into participating and contributing to this religious fundraiser.” ECF No. 47-8 at 4 (response to Interrogatory 5). As non-Christians, the school's actions in promoting and endorsing a Christian organization . . . made us feel like outsiders and unwelcome in our own community.” ECF No. 47-8. Id. Nevertheless, Ms. Zoe told her son that they would not be supporting the supply drive. In her deposition Ms. Zoe testified that her son was questioned and maltreated by his classmates for his beliefs underlying the reason he did not participate in the drive. ECF No. 58-2 at 10 (depo. p. 62).

         In their Complaint plaintiffs asserted violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act. They sought declaratory relief, injunctive relief, nominal damages, attorney's fees and costs under the Establishment Clause and the Equal Access Act. ECF No. 1 at 44-45. However, the Tenth Circuit determined that Ms. Zoe has standing to pursue her claims only in part. She has standing to pursue a claim for violation of the Establishment Clause and to seek retrospective declaratory relief, nominal damages, and presumably, attorney's fees and costs. She does not have standing as to her claim under the Equal Access Act, and she does not have standing to seek prospective relief. American Humanist Association, 859 F.3d at 1253-55, 60-61. Plaintiffs seek summary judgment on the remaining claims. ECF No. 47. Defendants ask the Court to enter summary judgment dismissing the remaining claims. See ECF No. 50 at 20.


         The Court may grant summary judgment if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party has the burden to show that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Here, both parties contend that the case may be resolved by a summary judgment.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Ms. Zoe's Establishment Clause Claim - Scope and Merits.

         The Tenth Circuit left it to this Court to determine the scope and merits of Ms. Zoe's Establishment Clause claim. 859 F.3d at 1254 n.4.

         1. Scope of Ms. Zoe's Claim.

         Ms. Zoe asserts that the District engaged in a pattern or practice of promoting Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause. ECF No. 1 at 40. I bear in mind the limits of what is before this Court at this time. The Tenth Circuit determined that Ms. Zoe does not have standing to seek prospective relief. Also, Ms. Zoe does not have standing to challenge activities at District charter schools (which her children do not attend or come into contact with) or a Belize mission trip organized by St. Andrew ...

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