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School’s use of Lutheran building sparks church-state complaint

A national group that fights for separation of church and state is taking issue with Discovery Charter’s new campus at the Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Las Vegas, calling on the school to remove religious symbols.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, sent a letter to school officials this month arguing that the display of several crosses on walls inside the school and outside the church building violates court rulings barring public schools from displaying religious messages.

“The appearance that the school endorses Christianity is overwhelming and undeniable,” wrote Christopher Line, a legal fellow for the foundation. “If (Discovery) wishes to continue leasing from a religious organization, it must ensure that the school environment is constitutionally compliant.”

John Haynal, the receiver appointed by the State Public Charter School Authority to turn the once-struggling school around, said his team removed two crosses inside the building as soon as the school moved onto the church property near Sandhill and Flamingo roads in July.

He also said a banner welcoming visitors to Mount Olive and bearing a cross symbol will be moved to the front of the church and away from the school entrance by Oct. 1.

Discovery’s blue banner will replace the church banner, he said.

The school leases 6,800 square feet from the church, which includes a separate building behind the main sanctuary and a shared space in the church’s fellowship hall, which the school uses as a cafeteria and for art, Haynal said.

The door to the sanctuary is locked during school hours, and Discovery has use of the outbuilding and fellowship hall from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, he said.

Haynal attributes the complaint to a person who was in a faction unhappy with changes that occurred last year when he was appointed to take over the school, which struggled in its elementary grades.

“I think his belief is that he represents everybody,” Haynal said. “And it’s to me solely an adult agenda. We did everything appropriately.”

He said the school received a similar complaint from another national organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which urged Discovery to relocate to a nonreligious campus.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation did not provide the name of the complainant, but Line said in an interview that it came from a local resident who was concerned about the public charter school moving into a church.

Informed about Haynal’s response, Line welcomed the removal of the crosses so far.

But it’s unclear whether a cross at the front of the sanctuary, which faces Sandhill Road, could cause legal issues.

Line said that if students are not entering near the cross and are not exposed to it every day, then it might be permissible.

“It really is just about taking steps to make sure that it’s very clear that the public school is not affiliated with the church’s teaching,” Line said.

Haynal argues that he can only control the area the school is leasing, not the sanctuary.

“I give my word to my public, to my parents and to my students that this will be a public school environment second to none,” he said. “And only that.”

Contact Amelia Pak-Harvey at apak-harvey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4630. Follow @AmeliaPakHarvey on Twitter.

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