A secular group is demanding that a Minnesota public school stop sending students on a field trip to a local church to help prepare meals for the poor, calling the act "unconstitutional."
The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center -- no stranger to fighting battles over the separation of church and state -- sent a letter this week to the School of Engineering and Arts, an elementary school in Golden Valley, Minn., claiming that educators have been sending students to Calvary Lutheran Church for a service project.
Students were reportedly sent to the church to help prepare meals for programs associated with Feed My Starving Children, a Christian organization that cares for the poor.
Screen shot from the Feed My Starving Children website
The secular legal group was reportedly alerted to the alleged First Amendment violation after a student's family complained.
In a letter dated Feb. 3, the legal firm wrote to principal Kim Hiel and executive director of academics Lori Simon, claiming that the purported infraction is "such an obvious violation that a parental complaint should not be necessary" to bring it to administrators' attention.
The letter also claimed that the family in question had already voiced concern to school officials, but has been ignored.
While the legal group said that it was understandable the school was trying to do something good, it called the act of bringing students to a church to help a Christian nonprofit inappropriate.
"Very importantly, we fully understand that at least one purpose of this field trip was to have the children participate in charity work intended to assist poverty-stricken people," the letter read. "Such good intentions, however, can be pursued in innumerable other ways that do not involve immersing the unsuspecting children into a theologically-charged environment."
A Jan. 28 posting on the school's Facebook page shows an image of children putting meals together for Feed My Starving Children along with this message: "Kathryn, SEA 4th Grader, and Nathan, former SEA student, spent the past two days not making forts or Rube Goldbergs, rather they spent it in service creating meals with Feed My Starving Children!"
A video also appears to show students volunteering with the organization.
Monica Miller, an attorney for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said that the school's actions violate the U.S. Constitution.
"For public school administrators to send students to a religious environment to work on a religious mission with a religious organization is unconstitutional," Miller said in a press release distributed by the group. "This is a clear violation of the separation of church and state."
The Appignani Humanist Legal Center asked for School of Engineering and Arts officials to reply to the letter within two weeks.
The debate here is over whether it's appropriate for public school students to visit a church and to volunteer with a Christian organization. While the house of worship was reportedly the venue used to assemble the meals, there is no indication that the activity itself was coercive or faith-driven.
Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the school responds to the legal group's complaint.