In the wake of complaints, officials at several public school districts in and around El Paso, Texas, have agreed to stop sending children on field trips to a local church.
The El Paso Times reported recently that four local school districts in December of 2011 bused children to the Abundant Living Faith Center in El Paso, where they watched a religious presentation and were presented with toys. Parents signed permission slips for the trip, but some parents said those slips said nothing about a religious presentation.
John Witte Jr., a law professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta, told The Times that the practice was clearly illegal, calling it “patently unconstitutional.”
Teachers had complained that the trip, which took up most of the day, squandered time that could be better used for education. It also cost tax money to transport the children and pay staff salaries.
After the story ran, some school officials told staffers at the church that they will no longer take part in the project. School districts in El Paso, Fabens, Socorro and Ysleta have bused children to the event in recent years.
At the Ysleta district, which sent 3,000 kids to the church last year, a decision was still pending about what to do this year.
“We will go ahead and review it,” spokeswoman Patricia Ayala told The Times. “We have not made a decision at this time.”
During the visit, students were shown a play based on the popular Toy Story films. Although some parents were under the impression that the play was secular in nature, a member of the church staff said otherwise.
“We are a church, and it’s a Christmas play,” said Elena Delman, a spokeswoman for Abundant Living Faith Center.
Ayala admitted that the play is religious in nature. She told The Times, “What we understand afterward is that there was more religion than we were aware of.”
Arlinda Valencia, president of the Ysleta Teachers Association, criticized Abundant Living Faith Center, a mega-church with 20,000 members, for using toys as a lure to attract children.
“It’s a smokescreen,” Valencia said. “They promise toys, but they have an agenda.”
Shelley Lincoln, vice president of the teachers’ group, concurred, remarking, “I was concerned. How were we going to a church and have it not be religious? The play was very religious. From the get-go, it was religion.”
Some concerned parents contacted Americans United about the matter. In April, attorneys with AU wrote to officials at the four school districts and urged them to discontinue the program.
“Public schools are constitutionally prohibited from financing or supporting religious proselytization or instruction of students,” wrote AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.