KANSAS CITY — The American Civil Liberties Union has warned a northwest Missouri school district that it is coming close to breaching the line of separation between church and state with some of the motivational speakers it has arranged through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Emails obtained by the ACLU from the St. Joseph School District contain numerous religious references and referred to a mother who complained about one speaker's preaching as "crazy."
The issue came to the ACLU's attention after former Chicago Bears team chaplain Ray McElroy, a former NFL defensive back, made several presentations to district schools in October. The licensed minister describes himself on his website as "a man of faith and family."
Doug Bonney, the legal director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, said McElroy was one of several speakers the district arranged with the help of the Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The group says on its website that it challenges coaches and athletes "to use the powerful medium of athletics to impact the world for Jesus Christ." Other FCA speakers who have spoken to St. Joseph students include former NBA player Adrian Branch.
The ACLU said the district risked violating the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which bars the government from endorsing religion.
Stephen Briggs, the school district's attorney, said in a statement that the district has followed the law and its policies regarding motivational speakers and reviewed them with the person responsible for booking assemblies.
"In addition, the district will remind those individuals that their personal faith cannot interfere with the fulfillment of their job duties," Briggs wrote, adding that the district has received just one complaint about an FCA speaker. He also apologized for the characterization of that parent as crazy, saying it was "inappropriate."
Wes Simmons of the Northwest Missouri Fellowship of Christian Athletes called the situation "unfortunate" and said his group is "very deliberate not to cross any lines."
But the ACLU said in a letter to the district's attorney that the emails it obtained suggest there may be "a religious motive for scheduling assemblies featuring religious presenters."
The ACLU noted that Cindy Crouse, the school district's coordinator of guidance and counseling, wrote in an August email discussing how to pay for FCA assemblies that there is nothing "God can't tackle, so I will join you on faith that we can raise the funds."
In an email to Simmons the following month, Crouse called the mother who complained about McElroy "crazy." She concluded by stating, "Satan was at work today."
Simmons responded, "This isn't the only seemingly spiritual attack we've received as of late ... must mean we're threatening satan's kingdom!"
One of the ACLU's main concerns was that school events were used to promote religious events elsewhere. At one or more of McElroy's assemblies, the ACLU said, students in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club distributed cards advertising a religious program called "Fields of Faith" that was presented at a St. Joseph baseball stadium.
Email correspondence also shows that Crouse talked to the FCA about bringing another group called the Power Team to St. Joseph schools for assemblies in December. That concerned the ACLU because the Power Team often invites its school audiences to churches in the evening. The group's websites say it combines "feats of strength" with "the life-changing message of the cross."
The December assemblies didn't happen, and the district's attorney told the ACLU that the Power Team isn't scheduled to come to the district this academic year.
But the ACLU noted in its letter to the district's attorney that while there were still discussions about the group appearing in St. Joseph schools, Crouse asked in an email whether area churches had plans for the group yet. She also noted in an email to Simmons that she needed to know what the group would talk about.
"Thank you for understanding that I work in a public domain and I must follow the rules set forth by my supt.," Crouse wrote. "You know if it were up to me I'd preach the gospel every chance I had."
The ACLU's letter to the district's attorneys noted it's "theoretically possible that FCA-affiliated speakers could present secular programs" but the district must exercise "heightened vigilance" to ensure they don't proselytize.
"The required level of vigilance," the ACLU wrote, "is often lacking."