Lawsuit Targets Church's "Ubiquitous Presence" at Florence High School

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Even though church and state are separate entities according to the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court has ruled that religious clubs can meet at public schools after hours.

But when do such accommodations become promotion of a specific faith or doctrine? And did Florence High School cross this line over and over again?

That's the contention of Robert Basevitz, the sole Jewish staff member at the facility. He's filed a lawsuit against Fremont RE-2 School District, which includes FHS, as well as superintendent Rhonda Vendetti and the school's principal, Brian Schipper, over what the document describes as the Christian church's "ubiquitous presence."

Examples include prayer services near the school's flagpole large enough to block the entrance and plenty of other additional events — as many as five on a single day.

The lawsuit is shared here, along with numerous photos presented of evidence intended to demonstrate that the Christian activities at Florence High School are essentially endorsed by the school.

The religious institution at the heart of Basevitz's complaint is the Cowboy Church at the Crossroads, led by Pastor Randy Pfaff. The suit maintains that "the Church is advertised by two large signs that are hung on school property and are clearly visible to motorists.... According to its supporters and the Church itself, its aim is to 'get church back into school.'"

Also associated with Cowboy Church is The Fellowship of Christian Huskies, which the suit says Pfaff founded in 2011.

While it is ostensibly student-led, the suit maintains that "the Fellowship is a front designed to allow Pastor Pfaff and the Church to use the school as a platform for his 'mission work' of preaching to students and staff.

"Thus, despite claims of student leadership, Pastor Pfaff has publically stated that he is the group’s leader," the suit continues.

"In addition, the 'student-led' Fellowship has 10 different adult sponsors, including five high school staff members, the School’s Principal Defendant Brian Schipper, and four different members of the community who are otherwise unaffiliated with the School.... Pastor Pfaff, with complicity from Principal Schipper, presents himself to the School’s students and staff as an 'approved RE-2 school district volunteer.'"

On top of Sunday services, Cowboy Church holds daily morning prayer services in front of the school, with participants encouraged to gather at the flagpole. Here's a flyer about one of the get-togethers:

The suit says Pfaff or other church personnel use a public-address system to speak to students and staffers who participate, including Principal Schipper. Here's one photo of the services....

...and another....

...and a third:

On May 15, 2014, a "scholarship night," the lawsuit says five different Christian events took place at the school. Here's the rundown, as featured in the Canon City Daily Record:

Wednesday is a big day at the Florence High School, which starts with senior prayer around the flagpole at 7:20 a.m. Fellowship of Christian Huskies and lunch, water and prayer will be offered at 10:55 a.m.

Then the Todd Becker Foundation and rock Group ‘Chye’ in concert will be presented at 12:45 p.m. in the gymnasium.

Todd Becker Foundation is a Faith Based Group…’Chye’ has been all over the nation and several schools in Colorado talking about choices, responsibility, accountability and yes, God has the answer to your life....at 7 p.m.

A free concert will be presented by ‘Chye’ in the gymnasium and a more spirit led and filled presentation by Todd. Many, many students and adults have found Jesus during this presentation....

Cowboy Church at Crossroads invites all churches in the area to support and attend this free concert. "It’s about bringing kids to Jesus and praying with them," said Pastor Randy Pfaff in an e-mail. ‘All of us should be about that."

On the same day, Cowboy Church at Crossroads will present 16 college scholarships and 16 leather bound engraved Bibles to students.

This past December, Basevitz met with Schipper and Vendetti to "formally complain about the Church's ubiquitous presence at Florence High School," the lawsuit states. According to the document, he was told in response that during prayer ceremonies, he could "enter and exit the School using the side entrances."

The following month, the suit notes, Vendetti sent an e-mail to staffers that stated in part, “First and foremost, the school board, the high school principals and I support the Fellowship of Christian Huskies...we understand the right of our community members, parents, and students to pray at the flagpole.... The district welcomes volunteers and has not restricted access to any of our schools from any community member."

Days later, Basevitz overheard a student saying, "We can't do Jesus Pizza because Mr. B is Jewish."

Then, Schipper posted this on the Fellowship of Christian Huskies Facebook page: “The enemy always fights the hardest when he knows God has something great in store.”

Was Basevitz the "enemy" in question?

Whatever the case, he's now formalized his complaint, which asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado to declare "as unconstitutional the Defendants' actions, which promote, endorse and establish religious activities," enjoin the defendants and their successors from "permitting, authorizing, encouraging and acquiescing in the delivering of...sponsoring Christian prayer...sponsoring and housing the Cowboy Church at Crossroads...distributing bibles to students...proselytizing to and presenting scriptures to students and staff...hosting school events at Christian locations, and...hosting evangelical Christian groups."

There's also a request for "compensatory and nominal damages," attorneys' fees, litigation costs and "any other relief as this Court deems just and proper."

The school district isn't commenting on the suit, but Principal Schipper defends what's going on at Florence High School, as can be seen in this 7News report. Below it, find the complete lawsuit.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

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