Town cancels religious trip amid First Amendment violation concerns

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Christiansburg has canceled a town-sponsored field trip after the Freedom From Religion Foundation questioned whether or not it violated the separation of church and state clause of the First Amendment.

According to their website http://www.FFRF.org, the Madison, Wisconsin based group is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

In a Feb. 6 letter to Director of the Christiansburg Parks and Recreation Department Brad Epperley, FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel informed the town that they had received a complaint about the legality of a government-sponsored trip to the Ark Encounter and Creationism Museum in Williamstown and Petersburg, Kentucky.

“While encouraging citizens to attend family-friendly recreation is a laudable goal, advertising and organizing a trip to a Christian ministry constitutes government endorsement of a religion and alienates those Christiansburg residents who are not Christian and who are not religious,” Seidel said in the letter.

Seidel also said that it being a religious entity in and of itself does not violate the First Amendment, but rather the proselytizing nature of the park is the problem.

“If it was a historical site like a church that would be one thing,” Seidel said in a phone interview on Monday.

The town responded to Seidel’s letter on Feb. 7, notifying the FFRF that the trip had been canceled and removed from the town’s website.

Town spokesperson Melissa Powell sent the following statement to the News Messenger on Monday:

“The trip was requested by several of our seniors who regularly take trips with us and participate in our extensive list of programs and classes.

Parks and Rec tries to create opportunities to satisfy many interests, and our goal is to offer a variety of programming to meet the needs and wants of all of our community members.

Our senior trips are very popular, and we head to a new destination almost every week. About seven of our seniors requested this particular destination.

After creating the trip offering, we had a lack of interest and had been considering canceling. We were using a travel company to organize the trip, which included use of their buses and drivers, and they required a minimum number of participants.

Given that this trip was not a core program and may not have had the participation level to meet the required minimum, once we received the letter and acknowledged there were questions surrounding the program, we decided it was not something we needed to take a stance on.

Given all these circumstances and the fact that we recognize there are third parties who can organize a trip like this, we canceled it.”

Powell also said that the town had received at least one other inquiry/complaint about the trip from individuals not associated with the FFRF.

Seidel said that the FFRF’s goal is not to sue localities for what they believe to be violations of the First Amendment, and said that the situation being resolved without litigation is the “preferred way” of handling things.

“We just want to uphold the separation of church and state.”

Powell did not say specifically whether the incident would spark a change in how future trips are planned.

“Our mission as a recreation provider is not to make statements or take stands. Rather, it’s to provide enjoyable, public recreation,” she said. “Our mission is to provide enjoyable, public recreation that meets the needs and interests of all of our residents and participants. We’ll continue to be responsive to citizen interest and requests and offer a variety of programming.”