Two schools have decided to pull out of a charity toy drive after being challenged by the American Humanist Assn. over separation of church and state issues.

East Point Academy in West Columbia, S.C., and SkyView Academy in Highlands Ranch, Colo., have withdrawn from the annual Operation Christmas Child project, run by Samaritan's Purse, an organization describing itself as a “nondenominational evangelical Christian International Relief organization.” The drive involves students filling boxes with toys, which are then sent to poor children in the developing world.

The American Humanist Assn. contacted the schools via letter, part of which said, “Because the purpose and effect of Operation Christmas Child is to induce impoverished children to convert to Christianity, the school's promotion of this program violates the Constitution.”

Renee Matthews, principal of East Point Academy, said, “We have a very small budget and very small legal budget. We felt that we could not risk using our school funding for classrooms and teachers to fight a court case.”

Q: Is the AHA right to take such a stance in this situation?

I expect that the members of the American Humanist Assn. will all be visited by three ghosts this coming Christmas! It always astounds me how the squeaky wheels gather together to spend their time thwarting the good efforts of the majority population wishing to ease suffering in the name of God. And how jaded and negative a view they take. The AHA asserts that “the purpose and effect of Operation Christmas Child is to induce impoverished children to convert.” This makes the charity look evil. Instead of blessing kids at Christmas, the effort is condemned as duress, as though children who don't convert won't get presents. That's ridiculous.

Our church has participated in the program for years. Every box has three components: toiletries, school supplies and toys. Yes, there is literature about Christmas put into the box, but that's because it's Christmas, and its Holy Namesake compels the delivery. Recipients should know what ultimately motivates their anonymous gifts, but no child is forced to convert, neither will they be overlooked if they don't. And unless a family in a public school objects to Christmas in general, why would they not allow for participation in this charity? The school contribution is for the needy, and the OCC ministry is merely the conduit that also happens to include the words of life when they ship the boxes.

I think it can all be done without Establishment violation, but if you go to the AHA website, they are clear that their mission is to “advance humanism,” and that they “take very seriously the idea that ‘No deity will save us.'” How do they advance their denial of our divine Savior? By forcing public retreat through costly litigation. They deny that we are “one nation under God,” and work to destroy America's soul. Humbug!

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
Montrose

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In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that my church supports Samaritan's Purse. In fact, we just sent off about 50 boxes, each of which represents a gift for one child. And we have given to Samaritan's Purse in past years as well.

I certainly believe in the concept of separation of church and state, but as for the AHA complaining at Christmastime, I almost want to say, “Oh, come on!” I personally was not aware of any “converting” on the part of Samaritan's Purse, and I must say I don't like the idea of proselyting little children, especially needy little children. But I guess I need to know exactly what the Purse personnel do or say to the little ones before I urge that we find another charity to support.

So I'm really torn on this one. Kids should not be forced to “choose Jesus” before they get a gift, and I wouldn't be surprised if an organization run by Franklin Graham did exactly that. But at the same time, part of me wants to yell out, “It's Christmas, for crying out loud! Can't we get a break from the “Separation police'“?

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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I would guess any constitutional issue hinges on whether religious materials, missionary tracts and such, are included along with the gifts sent to children. This is unclear from news reports. The principal says they aren't. The American Humanist Assn. contends that they are.

If AHA is right, the school's participation may be a problem. However, it is one that can be easily resolved by allowing parents and kids who want to participate do so outside of school. Some of the stories indicate that parents are already doing this.

According to the AHA website, its purpose is to foster “ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” By joining Operation Christmas Child, the school was accomplishing this. Unfortunately, the other part of the AHA's mission is to erase the influence of “theism and other supernatural beliefs.” Operation Christmas Child, in the AHA's view, falls into these unacceptable realms.

But really, in a world rife with suffering, is crushing a holiday gift program the best AHA can do? Since we're talking about children in developing countries, perhaps they could devote their legal and financial resources to helping African kids forced into guerrilla armies, or maybe they could do something about child prostitution. To most of us, these atrocities are far more offensive than religious tracts. But battling them requires greater effort, and courage, than threatening to sue a small charter school.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta

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Yes, I think that the American Humanist Assn. has the law on their side, which the school district also seems to acknowledge in avoiding a court case. Had the school prevailed, their legal bills would probably have had to be paid by the plaintiffs, making me question the budget excuse.

The claim that banning Operation Christmas Child is a violation of religious freedom is absurd. Anyone can freely contribute to this religious organization, just not under the sponsorship of our public schools. Even more ridiculous are parents' claims that they are being bullied by being told the program is not appropriate in public schools. This is an insult to victims of actual bullying.

It is sad that destitute children aren't being given toys without strings attached. After all, Christmas celebrates one who taught that righteousness should not be practiced to be noticed, and that charity should be conducted “so that your giving will be in secret.”

Roberta Medford
Atheist
Montrose

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Unfortunately the two charter schools, Sky View Academy in Colorado and East Point Academy in South Carolina have fallen prey to common misperceptions of the interpretation of the Establishment Clause. They have been singled out by the American Humanist Assn. for violating separation of church and state by participating in a Christmas charity project for poor children sponsored by a religious organization. Under intimidation of potential lawsuit, both schools quickly canceled their participation, leaving students and families confused and disappointed.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (formally known as Alliance Defense Fund) is a legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their religious faith. In a letter dated Nov. 20, 2013 sent to 13,000 school districts nationwide and available on their website, the ADF had the following comments on this situation.

“Public schools' confusion about the legalities of celebrating Christmas has been largely caused by inaccurate information regarding the Establishment Clause spread by certain groups opposed to any religious expression occurring in public. Providing students with opportunity to put together a box of gifts for impoverished children worldwide does not become unlawful just because it is sponsored by a religious organization. The Constitution both allows and protects the celebration of Christmas in public schools.”

Over the last couple of decades misinformation about the legal meaning of the separation of church and state has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Many Americans would be surprised to know that singing Christmas carols in school programs, displaying religious symbols of Christmas and saying “Merry Christmas” to students is constitutionally legal.

Sometimes the only way to dispel misinformation is to stand up and challenge it, even in the legal system, if necessary. I think both these schools passed up an opportunity to do just that.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church
Pasadena

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No, the AHA's stance is neither right nor beneficial to anyone. Let's consider the practical consequences of what they have done. Dozens, probably hundreds, of voluntary charitable deeds have been thwarted by their financial and legal “bully” tactics. Just as many impoverished children living in other nations have been denied those gifts and expressions of kindness, and the message of love and hope that would have come with them. And the AHA has used the courts to force their religious view on others. Yes, atheism is a form of religious opinion and expression which only a small minority of Americans holds. Funny how “humanism” has accomplished so much to destroy what is good in the human race. We should indeed say “Ah-ha! So that's what they're really about!”

It was Jesus Christ himself who said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Jesus epitomized giving on the cross. Imagine the blessing and joy that the prospect of heartfelt giving was producing in the hearts of the children, parents and faculty of these schools. Now imagine them receiving the sad news that some large, faceless special interest group had effectively cheated them out of the opportunity. How could anyone on God's earth possibly say that was right?

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Burbank

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Queen Elizabeth I was reputed to have said that lands unclaimed by other princes were ripe for colonization. The way those lands were often claimed was by first sending in troops, followed by missionaries. After the lands were decimated, the missionaries converted the indigenous peoples to their faith. For instance in the case of Great Britain, as the natives were proselytized, they became increasingly influenced by British faith and British values.

The idea of giving gifts with strings attached can make us all suspect. As Episcopal priest and Claremont professor Reverend Dr. Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook has said, “We Westerners are fond of throwing toys and turkeys at impoverished peoples (both outside and inside this country).” We throw bits of our culture at people to make ourselves feel better, and perhaps even demand a little more.

When we give people things that we value from our culture, our toys, our turkeys or our religion, aren't we saying you would be better off if you could be like us? We seldom ask what they want or what they need. An interesting way to interpret God's love might be to say, I have been given much in this life, what can I do for you? But that would put us in the low seat, wouldn't it? Perhaps we would be greeted with shocked silence. Perhaps we would be treated to a list of demands. Perhaps we might have to make reparations for our participation in their colonization; how dare we think these were not spiritual people before we tied religious strings to our gifts? Perhaps as Christians “go into all the world,” the American Humanist Assn. is making the point that Christians be the kind of spiritual people who make room for others to have their own voice.

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel
Burbank

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A Fox radio show host recently reported on this story about the American Humanist Assn. and its challenge to the two schools. These Humanists, the report stated, said they considered school participation with the evangelical Christian group a breach of the separation of church and state. In his show the commentator said: “Thanks to a bunch of godless, heartless ‘humanist' bullies, dozens of poor children will wake up on Christmas morning without a single toy.”

I believe this statement is an incredible distortion of the truth.

Attacking these Humanists as heartless bullies for defending the law of the United States against the establishment of a particular religion is a serious case of slander. And stating that children in third-world countries will not have “a single toy” is an untenable exaggeration. Just because we may disagree with another person does not mean we have the freedom to impugn his or her integrity and compassion. Two facts are important here. One is that these are public schools, supported with taxpayers' money. The second is that Operation Christmas Child is an arm of an unabashedly Christian organization whose mission is to convert others to Christianity.

I am not denying that Christian or other religious people have the right to evangelize for their beliefs. However, they should not have the ability to do so with the support of government-funded entities such as public schools. My hope is that people of all faith traditions or none will be generous during this holiday season and the rest of the year so that children throughout the world will know that we care, whether we are Christian or not.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta