An unconstitutional partnership between a Pennsylvania school district and a Christian camp needs to be dissolved, stresses the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
To cope with the pandemic, the Williamsport Area School District has implemented a hybrid schedule in which students are required to attend school in-person on select days and learn remotely on others. The superintendent recently announced during a school board meeting a partnership with Camp Susque whereby K-3 students may attend the camp on remote-learning days. During these days, students will only have about two hours of school-authorized learning, with an additional four-five hours provided by Camp Susque.
Camp Susque is a nondenominational Christian camp “with the goal of introducing campers of all ages to our God and Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ, as proclaimed in His Word, the Bible.” Its mission, which drives all programming, “is biblical evangelism and growth in Christian character.” According to Peter J. Swift, director of Camp Susque, religious programming will “definitely” be a part of programming offered to students during these remote learning schooldays.
The relationship between the district and Camp Susque raises grave First Amendment concerns, FFRF emphasizes, since it impermissibly promotes religion and unlawfully shows the district’s preference for Christianity. The district cannot allow its schools to be used as recruiting grounds for religious organizations.
“It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Attorney Madeline Ziegler writes to Williamsport Area School District Superintendent Timothy S. Bowers. “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer a religious organization unique access to its students during the school day, and signal endorsement of that organization’s religious programming. Courts have repeatedly struck down public school practices that affiliate public schools with religious groups and religious instruction.”
It is irrelevant that participation in this program is voluntary, FFRF underscores. It makes no difference how many parents and students do not mind or even prefer that a constitutional violation continue. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.
This partnership sends a strong message that the Williamsport Area School District endorses both Camp Susque and its biblical evangelism. The superintendent’s direct involvement in his official capacity, as well as the approval of the Williamsport Area School District Board of Directors, reinforces that message. To preserve the First Amendment rights of the district’s non-Christian students and their parents, FFRF asks that Williamsport Area School District immediately discontinue the hybrid learning partnership with Camp Susque.
“The superintendent seems to be oblivious to the sensitivities of families who don’t subscribe to the brand of the majority religion that the camp espouses,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’d be hard for the district to send a stronger message of noninclusiveness.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,000 members and a chapter in Pennsylvania. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.
Image from Susque.org