Teacher sues Florence district for alleged promotion of religion

Updated May 27 – A teacher filed suit against the Florence school district Tuesday, claiming unconstitutional promotion of religion at the district’s high school.

Robert Basevitz, a teacher at Penrose Elementary School in the 1,373-student Fremont RE-2 School District, filed his complaint in U.S. District Court in Denver.

“This is not one or two isolated incidents but pervasive entanglement with religion” at Florence High School, said Boulder lawyer Paul Maxon, who is representing Basevitz.

Named as defendants are the district, Superintendent Rhonda Roberts (listed by her previous surname of Vendetti in the suit) and Florence High Principal Brian Schipper.

According to the suit, Basevitz started working at Florence High last fall but was transferred to Penrose in January at the same time administrators decided to take no action on an administrative complaint he filed last December. The suit describes Basevitz as “to his knowledge, the district’s only Jewish employee.” (Read the full complaint at the bottom of this article.)

Maxon said Basevitz chose to file a suit “because we weren’t able to resolve it informally.”

The suit alleges a “pattern and practice of the defendants’ endorsement and promotion of religion in a public school setting” and argues that Florence High “operates largely to promote the evangelical Christian ideals of The Cowboy Church at Crossroads.”

That non-denominational church holds Sunday worship in the school cafeteria. The suit claims that a student group named the Fellowship of Christian Huskies is “a front designed to allow Pastor [Randy] Pfaff and the church to use the school as a platform for his ‘mission work’ of preaching to students and staff.”

As examples of improper religions activities, the suit cites:

  • Daily prayer around the flagpole outside the school’s main entrance. The suit claims crowds sometime are so large that they block the main entrance, and that administrators suggested Basevitz use side entrances if the front door was blocked.
  • Distribution of religious flyers in school.
  • Use of the school’s public address system for church announcements.
  • Placement of a prayer request box in the faculty lounge.
  • Use of classrooms for weekly “Jesus Pizza” sessions for students.
  • Annual presentation of bibles to graduating seniors during a ceremony in the school.

Superintendent Roberts said Tuesday that administrators hadn’t yet seen a copy of the complaint, but on Wednesday she issued this response:

“The district and our legal team have been working diligently to settle this matter informally, but regretfully, we were unable to do so. … I also want to reassure our community 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.”

The lawsuit concludes, “The defendants’ actions are designed to, and have the effect of showing favoritism toward religions, and in particular Christianity, in violation of the establishment clause of the 1st and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution.”

The suit requests an injunction banning the flagpole prayer, using the school for church events and other alleged practices.

The lawyer said he wasn’t aware of any recent similar cases in Colorado but referred to “a larger movement nationwide by evangelical organizations to bring religion back into the schools.” He cited a recent article in The Nation magazine as evidence of that trend.

A national group named See You at the Pole promotes an annual prayer session around school flagpoles. This year’s event is scheduled for Sept. 23.