Event at Bella Vista school sparks criticism

BENTONVILLE -- An organization promoting the separation of church and state accused the Bentonville School District of violating the Constitution for hosting an event last week that included prayer and the sprinkling of holy water.

Marshall Ney, the district's attorney, responded to the allegation by saying the district had nothing to do with organizing the event.

Fitness Trail

The Land of Healthiness Fitness Trail at Cooper Elementary School is intended to develop both physical health and an understanding of proper exercise techniques. Students will use it as an outdoor classroom, taking advantage of the education stations along the way to learn while increasing their physical activity. It also will be available to community members, according to a news release from the Bentonville School District.

The trail is the second phase of a joint project between Cooper Elementary and Mercy Health, continuing from a $40,000 grant from the General Mills Foundation. The Community Garden, located at the Mercy Clinic just across the street from Cooper Elementary School, opened in 2014. It serves as an outdoor classroom for hands-on learning, something the school hopes to continue with the fitness trail, according to the news release.

Source: Staff report

Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, wrote a two-page letter to Ney expressing concern about a ribbon cutting held during the school day Feb. 19 to celebrate the opening of the Land of Healthiness Fitness Trail at Cooper Elementary School.

The trail was made possible through a partnership with Mercy Health Northwest Arkansas and the General Mills Foundation. It features stations where people can do a variety of exercises.

John Halstead, vice president of mission and ethics for Mercy, addressed the gathering of about 20 students as well as some school administrators at the ceremony. He spoke about God and referred to scripture while discussing the importance of exercise. He also led a prayer.

"This is really a Unitarian prayer that we ask together, so I'm going to ask all of you, our kids and you adults as well, to raise your hand," Halstead said, according to a video of the event posted online by the foundation. "We're going to ask collectively for God's blessing on this place."

When he finished saying the prayer, Sister Anita DeSalvo sprinkled holy water on the site.

Elliott, in his letter to Ney, wrote the Freedom from Religion Foundation had received a complaint from a parent about the ceremony.

"It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event to include religious activities," Elliott wrote. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools."

Elliott urged the district to discontinue prayer at future school-sponsored activities and asked the district to provide in writing the steps it intends to take "to remedy this constitutional violation."

Ney said the foundation appears to have made some incorrect assumptions of the district's involvement in the event.

Though students and staff members were present, the district "did not organize or plan or create an agenda for or even review anything relating to the program that was sponsored and presented by Mercy and General Mills," Ney said.

The event would have been different if the district had organized it, he said.

"I expect it has shined a light on the need to be vigilant in the review of programming before there is any presentation," Ney said. "I don't know that anyone can unring the bell, but I also don't think lightning will strike twice."

Ney said he has responded to the foundation's letter.

"They have been aggressive in wanting to assert themselves into the handling of the issue and I have respectfully declined their participation," Ney said.

Paul Stolt, the district's director of communications, said Mercy gave the schools "a great gift" and the district was happy to allow Mercy to hold a celebration at the school. He added the district wasn't aware of the agenda before the event.

A spokeswoman for Mercy didn't return a phone message seeking comment Friday.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation is based in Madison, Wis. It seeks to "promote the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism," according to its website.

The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law "respecting an establishment of religion."

Danielle Weatherby is an assistant professor of law at the University of Arkansas who frequently writes about First Amendment issues, particularly those related to schools.

She wasn't aware of all the facts surrounding the Cooper ceremony, but said there's cause for concern when there is promotion of religion on school grounds.

"I think the issue goes back to whether this was truly school-sponsored, and at least right now I don't know if I have the facts to make that determination," Weatherby said.

If the students present were led to believe attendance at the event was mandatory, there would be a constitutional problem, she said.

"Bottom line, I think districts need to be cautious when hosting religious activities on school grounds," Weatherby said.

NW News on 02/27/2016