Prayers around Florence public school flag pole, ‘Jesus pizza,’ lawsuit alleges

<p>(Via&nbsp;<a href="">complaint filed by Robert Basevitz</a>)</p>
<p>An image supplied in a lawsuit that says Florence High School, a public school, is sponsoring religious activities.</p>
Photo: Florence HS prayers 1 (Facebook screencap via lawsuit)
This image is one of the exhibits from a lawsuit that says Florence High School, a public school, is sponsoring religious activities.

A public school teacher is alleging that a Colorado high school sponsors religious activities including daily prayer circles at the school flagpole.

The lawsuit filed in a Denver court Tuesday alleges the activities at Florence High School southwest of Colorado Springs are sponsored by a local evangelical church called The Cowboy Church at Crossroads.

The church says it aims to quote “let God back in our schools.” According to the lawsuit, religious activities at the school include:

  • Daily prayer at the flagpole in front of the school.
  • School staff sometimes publicizes these prayer sessions during school hours over the school's public address system.
  • Flyers promoting the prayer sessions are distributed to students during school hours and list the local pastor and the school principal as contact persons.
  • Sometimes the prayer sessions are so large that students and faculty who are not participating cannot enter the school without interrupting the church's ceremony.
  • Students who don't participate in the prayer sessions are sometimes asked by their fellow students why they refuse to come.
  • The pastor and church hold weekly lunches during school hours at the school. The students refer to these lunches as referred to as "Jesus Pizza."
  • A school-sponsored retreat was held at a religious facility and, in addition to lectures about Christ, each meal was preceded by prayer.

"By using a public school to further their own personal religious beliefs, the school administration made us all fund their own personal religion. Not only is that illegal, it’s wrong," says Paul Maxon, an attorney for the plaintiff, Robert Basevitz, a former teacher at the school. "We shouldn’t be forced to fund somebody else’s religious practices."

The lawsuit names Fremont RE-2 district Superintendent Rhonda Vendetti and Florence High School principal Brian Schipper as defendants.

Maxon says Basevitz tried to resolve the issues through informal channels, pointing out to the school administration several times that these activities were illegal. He was initially ignored. The suit says when Basevitz again complained about not being able to enter the front doors because that day's prayer service was blocking the entrance, he was told he and others should use the side doors.

“When he finally did make a formal complaint, he was immediately retaliated against by being forced out of the school and transferred to a different location,” Maxon says.

Basevitz was transferred to an elementary school.

Basevitz is Jewish and Maxon says that gives poignancy to what happened to him.

"This is not somebody who purely on theoretical reasons is opposed to religious activities in a public school," Maxon says. "He actually is part of a religious minority and actually was discriminated against when he tried to get the school to stop these illegal religious activities."

Maxon says his client is asking for the illegal religious activities to stop.

"He believes very strongly in the constitution, in the first amendment and that our public institutions should be public and open to all and not be set up to favor one religion over the other," Maxon says. "So more than anything, he wants these religious practices to cease."

Fremont RE-2 Superintendent Rhonda Roberts said in an email statement that Florence High School has been, and continues to be, an educational institution that does not promote religion, as contended in the complaint.

"The majority of the information in the complaint is inaccurate, or at best, taken out of context. Any concerns raised by Mr. Basevitz were immediately addressed.

Additionally, it is important to understand that there has been no retaliation against Mr. Basevitz. All of the District’s staffing decisions are based on the needs of our students and consistent with the terms of our negotiated agreement.

Fremont RE-2 School District is in compliance with the guidance in law regarding the separation of church and state. The district is committed to following the letter of the law, while still allowing students the right to have student led clubs that reflect their interests."