Club Monarch, an afterschool bible club, was run in part by teachers and routinely given preferential treatment at Mariposa Elementary School in Brea, Calif. The club was mentioned in the weekly newsletter and listed in the school calendar. The newsletter announcements asked students to “Stop by the office to sign up.” There were posters around the school exclusively advertising the club. At a back-to-school night, the principal effusively praised and recommended the club. And the club was allowed to begin its meetings a mere five minutes after the school day ended.
FFRF reminded the school that this sort of collaboration was unconstitutional.
“It is a well-settled principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Brea Olinda Unified School District Superintendent Brad Mason back in March. “If a school chooses to allow outside groups to host afterschool programs on its property and an outside group decides to create a religious program, there must be no school involvement in the organization or promotion of that religious program. That means that the district cannot promote Club Monarch on its website, its school walls, to parents at back-to-school night, and cannot coordinate sign-ups for the club in the school office.”
FFRF also emphasized the extra care that elementary schools must take in this regard, given how vulnerable and impressionable their very young students are, and asked that the school end any appearance of endorsement of the club.
After reviewing school records obtained through an open records request, including over 2,500 pages of emails about Club Monarch going back only two years, FFRF wrote a follow-up letter in May stating that its apprehensions had been confirmed.
The school was distributing Club Monarch registration forms to its students and coordinating registration, instructing parents to return the forms to the school office or to their child’s teacher. Records showed that school staff members were routinely planning and coordinating Club Monarch meetings via their school email accounts, often during the school day. Superintendent Mason actually spoke at a Club Monarch meeting in February, “sharing … the heart of Jesus with the children,” according to the club’s Facebook page. Additionally, the club seems to have received special treatment in its rental, since it did not appear to possess the insurance certificate required by the school district’s facility use policy.
FFRF maintained that the 2,500 pages of records showed the deep entanglement of Mariposa Elementary School and Club Monarch, and urged that the club be disbanded. Finally, FFRF has received confirmation that its advice has been followed.
“Club Monarch has ceased to operate at Mariposa Elementary School and does not operate at any other district school sites,” the school district’s legal firm has written to FFRF. “We trust that this resolves the concerns expressed in your organization’s original letter dated March 1, 2016.”
FFRF appreciates the change of heart.
“The operation of a religious club at an elementary school with the collusion of school principal and staff was way beyond the pale, and we’re pleased we played a role in putting an end to it,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is dedicated to the separation of state and church, with almost 24,000 members nationwide, including more than 3,200 in California.