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8:12 PM Mon, Dec. 10th

Charter school under fire over allegedly preaching religion; child could be victim

PHOENIX — A legal fight over whether a chain of charter schools is illegally preaching religion is hung up in federal court over whether the child whose father is suing could become the victim of retaliation.

Attorney Keith Beauchamp is asking a federal appeals court to let the case go to trial with only “John Doe” listed as the name of the plaintiff.

Beauchamp had previously convinced U.S. District Court Judge Steven Logan that there is a reason to fear some actions against Doe’s child if his or her identity is disclosed. But Logan said that, at the very least, the lawsuit needs to reflect Doe’s actual initials.

But Beauchamp contends that there are so few children attending the Heritage Academy — only 1,500 spread out among three Maricopa County campuses — that even the initials would identify the parent and, ultimately, the child.

What the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately decides could determine whether the case moves forward.

Logan already has ruled that the Rev. David Felten, head pastor of the Fountains United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, has no legal standing to sue over the use of public tax dollars to support the alleged religious instruction provided at the academy. That leaves only Doe.

As a charter school, Heritage is a public school which gets state aid, albeit one run by a private entity. While it is exempt from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools, it still must live under others, ranging from the inability to charge tuition to prohibitions against discriminating in admissions.

There also is a specific legal requirement that a charter school “ensure that it is nonsectarian in its programs. And there is a state constitutional provision barring the use of public money for religious instruction and a separate one forbidding the use of state taxes for any sectarian school.”

The outcome of this case could have implications beyond Heritage Academy, as it goes to questions of not only what is being taught but even the books being used.

Attorney Richard Katskee, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which also is representing Doe, said Heritage is crossing the legal line in the teachings of school founder, president and teacher Earl Taylor Jr. that the Ten Commandments, including those that mandate the worship of God, must be obeyed to attain happiness. Other teachings, Katskee said, include that socialism violates God’s laws.

And he said the school engages in a form of proselytizing by telling students “they are duty-bound to implement and instruct others about these religious and religiously based principles in order to restore the United States to freedom, prosperity and peace.”

Katskee specifically singles out the required reading of “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land,” citing text that includes, “To protect man’s rights, God has revealed certain principles of divine law.”

In his own court filings, attorney Robert Grasso Jr., representing the academy, acknowledges the use of that book but told the judge it “speaks for itself” and denies there is any legal violation.