East Point Academy (the “Academy”) in West Columbia, South Carolina, is a highly-rated (100% Federal Accountability Rating, and an “Excellent” rating from the South Carolina state government), government charter school of 400 students. It is unique in that it is South Carolina’s first Chinese immersion elementary school with bilingual language instruction in English and Chinese. In addition, as part of its curriculum, the Academy offers a variety of humanitarian community service programs. One of the voluntary community service programs has included Operation Christmas Child (“OCC”). As some of my readers may be aware, OCC is sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organization that works with local churches and ministry partners to deliver gifts to needy children around the world. In fact, over the years, OCC has provided gifts to more than 100 million impoverished boys and girls in more than 130 countries. My family and I have had the pleasure to participate in OCC through our local church over the years. I am sure that some of my readers have as well.
But the grinches at the American Humanist Association (“AHA”) have threatened to file a lawsuit against the Academy for including OCC as one of the community service projects. According to Ms. Renee Matthews, principal of the Academy, she received a letter from Monica Miller, Esq., of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the AHA, in which Ms. Miller wrote the following:
This letter serves as notice to policymaking school officials of the East Point Academy’s unconstitutional conduct and as a demand that the school terminate all promotion, sponsorship, endorsement or affiliation with Operation Christmas Child immediately. Because the law prohibiting school endorsement of religion is well-settled, not only is the school district itself liable for this constitutional infringement pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1983, including in the form of punitive damages and the payment of plaintiff’s attorney’s fees, but each and every school official and employee involved are personally liable, in their individual capacities as well. In order to avoid the necessity of litigation to end your unconstitutional practices, contact us immediately (preferably by email) indicating that you will take the appropriate steps to remedy this clear constitutional violation, including by expressly renouncing any affiliation with or support of Operation Christmas Child and stating that the school will not collect of [sic] boxes on their behalf or encourage staff or students to do so.
In response to the threatened lawsuit against the Academy, Alliance Defending Freedom (“ADF”) sent a letter to the Academy offering free legal assistance in defending any AHA lawsuit if one was filed. The ADF letter explained that “there is nothing illegal about a public school providing students an opportunity to put together a box of gifts for impoverished children throughout the world just because the toy drive is sponsored by a religious organization.” Also, the ADF letter states that the academy “has taken no actions that promote any religious aspect of OCC. It simply offers OCC as an optional opportunity for students to engage in humanitarian aid to needy children.” The ADF letter importantly encouraged the Academy to use the threatened lawsuit as an important learning experience to “demonstrate to its students and to its wider audience that the correct response to being wrongfully accused of violating the law is to take a stand, rather than acquiesce to the accuser’s unreasonable demands.” (That alone might have served as a useful lesson for the native Chinese teachers at the Academy, but I digress!) Senior ADF legal counsel Kevin Theriot said, “It’s shameful for groups like the American Humanist Association to attack charity events that provide impoverished children with Christmas gifts they wouldn’t otherwise receive.” Senior ADF senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco correctly and wisely observed:
Public schools should provide students with as many community service opportunities as possible and not engage in unconstitutional discrimination. The American Humanist Association is incorrect that neutrality toward religion requires schools to discriminate against beneficial programs simply because they are run by Christians. That is not neutrality but targeted religious discrimination forbidden by the First Amendment.
In an interview with Mere Comments, Ms. Matthews said that notwithstanding the offer of free legal advice or representation, “we also had to realize that there are many other costs in getting involved in a battle like that.” So, in light of the AHA’s threat, OCC collections will no longer be made at the Academy. So, now I wonder how many of the so-called humanists at the AHA will be sending gifts to impoverished children around the world. My guess is not very many. And when the local school board election time comes around, I hope that the parents remember the lack of leadership by both the school board and Ms. Matthews.