A federal judge ruled Thursday in favor of a group that sued the Joplin School District over two 2015 field trips to Victory Ministry and Sports Complex, formerly the Bridge, in violation of the First Amendment.

The American Humanist Association filed the lawsuit in 2015 against the district on behalf of a parent of two Joplin students over the field trips, which the group contended violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment calling for the separation of church and state.

The lawsuit stemmed from a May 8 field trip by North Middle School students to Victory Ministry, 3405 Hammons Blvd., and a waiver the organization provided that was attached to permission slips sent home to parents to let them, according to the lawsuit, "understand their children may be invited to Bible studies and local churches while at Victory." The same waiver, the suit alleges, sought parents' permission for the child to participate in "worship services, Bible studies or any other activities that may pertain to the Christian faith."

On Friday, school district officials, including interim Superintendent Norm Ridder and Brandon Eggleston, then the principal of North Middle School, expressed disappointment with the ruling but said they were still reviewing the decision with attorneys.

“I’m frustrated with it," Ridder said. "Basically, I really think this is something (in which) we need to accept the order and move on.” Both he and Eggleston declined to comment further.

The Washington, D.C.-based Humanist Association praised the decision in an emailed statement Friday.

“This is a victory for the Constitution,” said David Niose, legal director for the American Humanist Association. “The school district has been funneling money and impressionable students to a religious ministry that is in the business of luring children to Christianity, and we’re glad that the court could see that this is clearly unconstitutional activity.”

Court documents show that after the permission slips were sent to parents in early May 2015 but prior to the field trip, some parents and groups such as the Humanist Association raised concerns to school district officials and Victory Ministry. When Victory was made aware of the concerns, the documents state, its executives notified school district officials that it would allow concerned parents to remove the portion of the waiver granting those permissions and still send their children on the field trip. But records indicate then-Superintendent C.J. Huff and Eggleston, who is now Joplin High School principal, did not inform parents of that option. 

"That decision alone raises serious concerns regarding the purpose and motivation of school district officials," Judge Douglas Harpool's ruling reads. "It is puzzling to this court that school officials chose not to communicate that message to parents. Actually, it is shocking the school distributed the waiver to parents to begin with."

Huff has since left the district.

According to court documents, the school district had contended the trip served a secular purpose — rewarding students for positive standardized test scores and good behavior during testing. But, the court said, "These valid secular objectives can be readily accomplished by other means."

"Here, the Joplin district made its students available to Victory, and as a result subject to its religious messages at public expense, during the school day," Harpool's ruling said. "While defendants claim no direct sharing of religious messages occurred during the field trips, the plain and unequivocal language of the waiver and release form permits Victory to invite students to Bible studies and local churches, and for students to actually participate in worship service, Bible studies, and any other activity pertaining to the Christian faith."

The parent on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed did not send her child on the field trip, which the school district contended meant the complaint had no standing because the child was not exposed to Christian messages. Citing precedent cases, though, Harpool denied that argument.

"A public school cannot force a student to choose between attending and participating in school functions and not attending only to avoid personally offensive religious rituals," his ruling said.

Court documents say Eggleston contacted Victory prior to the field trips and was assured students would not be preached to in response to the concerns raised by parents and others. Documents also say Eggleston met with North Middle School staff who would be attending the field trip and instructed them to monitor Victory employees, but that those present during the school's trips "were not given instructions regarding proselytization." 

Regardless of active proselytization, the court said, Victory's clearly stated Christian mission and prominent signage and literature supporting it represent religious influence. Attempts to reach Jack Frost, chief executive officer of Victory, were unsuccessful Friday.

In exploring whether the field trips violated the Establishment Clause, the court used a three-pronged test. The questions it considered were: Did the district's practice serve a secular purpose, was the primary effect to advance religion and is the Joplin district improperly entangled with Victory?

In exploring the question of "entanglements," the judge also raised what he said was a "grave concern" about what he called "an abstinence-only sex education" program called Battle of the Sexes that it says was part of the school district's curriculum and provided by LifeChoices at Victory Ministry. The court's ruling refers to LifeChoices as a "Christian-based organization," citing comments made by the organization saying it believes in a "divine purpose and plan for every child that is conceived."

But local LifeChoices officials say Battle of the Sexes is not a sex education program. The organization's sex education program is called Compass, takes place in district classrooms and has never taken place at Victory, said Jordynn Griffith, advancement director for LifeChoices.

Griffith called Battle of the Sexes an "empowerment program," and said it has since been moved from Victory. Discussions of sexual health could arise during Battle of the Sexes, Griffith said, if students ask questions on the subject, but the program is designed specifically for high school juniors and the material deals with any number of problems the average student might encounter, such as peer pressure or grief and depression processing.

"It's really broad," Griffith said.

Ridder said district officials are planning to discuss the issue with attorneys, and no decisions have been made yet about whether the district will continue with the Battle of the Sexes program.

What's next?

While the judge ruled in favor of the American Humanist Association, no settlement has been determined yet. The judge's decision says the parent, who is not identified in the suit, requested "nominal damages and attorneys' fees, expenses and costs." The court has granted all parties 10 days to submit language to be considered for its final order and judgment.