Following the threat of litigation, a public elementary school in South Carolina has cut ties with Operation Christmas Child, an annual outreach to kids in need that is operated by Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian organization.
East Point Academy, a charter school in West Columbia, S.C., has participated in Operation Christmas Child for the past three years, but after receiving a complaint from the American Humanist Association's Appginani Humanist Legal Center, school director Renee Mathews withdrew participation and support.
Mathews promptly responded to the complaint by informing parents in a letter on Tuesday that the Operation Christmas Child tradition would be discontinued. In her note, Mathews explained that participation was never compulsory and that parents and children were free to choose whether to take part.
"I assure you that many public schools in SC and across the United States participate in Operation Christmas Child," she wrote. "At our school only non-religious items have been collected for the boxes, no religious material is distributed to students or included with the boxes and the school has expended no money for the shipping of the boxes which each voluntary participant paid."
A screenshot of the letter sent to parents
That said, Mathews informed parents that the project would be discontinued to avoid expensive legal problems.
But the school had one small problem: parents had already organized boxes filled with goodies and items for children in need. Along with the cancellation notice, Mathews told parents to simply give the packages to the charity of their choice, as the school will no longer be arranging shipments to Operation Christmas Child.
Toys for Tots, a separate initiative, will continue at the school as planned.
Mathews told TheBlaze that she initially received a letter from the secular group on Monday stating that a parent had complained over the school's participation in Operation Christmas Child -- an action that the Appginani Humanist Legal Center called a "serious constitutional violation occurring at the school."
"Because the purpose and effect of Operation Christmas Child is to induce impoverished children to convert to Christianity, the school’s promotion of this program violates the Constitution," read the letter. "The boxes of toys are essentially a bribe, expressly used to pressure desperately poor children living in developing countries to convert to Christianity."
In a press release, Monica Miller, an attorney for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, called the school's participation "in a proselytizing religious program" inappropriate.
On Operation Christmas Child's website, the group's faith-based actions are touted, with a description that reads: "Since 1993, more than 100 million boys and girls in over 130 countries have experienced God’s love through the power of simple shoebox gifts from Operation Christmas Child. Samaritan’s Purse works with local churches and ministry partners to deliver the gifts and share the life-changing Good News of Jesus Christ."
Screen shot from the American Humanist Association website
Mathews said that most parents are understanding of the decision to cancel and protect the school from a potential lawsuit.
"They all said they very much understand what the school is doing in not fighting this," Mathews added.
This isn't the first time that someone inquired about the Operation Christmas Child event. Mathews said that she received a phone call after last year's initiative accusing the Christian organization of violating international law -- a claim that Mathews said her subsequent research didn't substantiate.
The initial decision to work with Operation Christian Child three years ago came after the school asked students and parents for prospective non-profits they could serve.
"We collected recommendations and then the different classes decided that they wanted to adopt the one they were most interested in," Mathews said.
Now, Operation Christmas Child will possibly no longer be one of those organizations.
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