Does this school trip cross line between church and state? Some Sacramento parents say yes

Some parents think this school field trip violates separation of church and state; the school district disagrees

Some parents at Crocker Riverside Elementary School in Sacramento say that the upcoming school field trip to Alliance Redwoods, a Christian-based camping site, violates the separation of church and state.
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Some parents at Crocker Riverside Elementary School in Sacramento say that the upcoming school field trip to Alliance Redwoods, a Christian-based camping site, violates the separation of church and state.

Parents at a Sacramento school have complained to their district about a field trip they say crosses the line between church and state.

Sixth-graders at Crocker Riverside Elementary are scheduled March 4-7 to visit Alliance Redwoods Outdoor Education, a private, Christian-owned campground in Sonoma County that rents its facilities to groups such as schools, universities and technology companies for camps and conferences.

Nature and science camp is a familiar rite of passage for many sixth-graders in the Sacramento region. For decades, parents have sent their preteens off to Sly Park in El Dorado County, or the Marin Headlands overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

For the past several years, Alliance Redwoods has also hosted such overnight camps for local school districts including Sacramento City Unified and Elk Grove Unified.

But some parents say there’s a key difference with Alliance Redwoods: They contend its religious affiliation and biblical signage on trail paths cross the boundary between church and state.

Karin Winters, whose older son attended the camp two years ago, said her concerns with the camp are on principle. Her 11-year-old son is set to attend this year.

“I am essentially being forced to support a religious organization,” Winters said. “While it does not teach Christian teachings, their mission is a Christian one and I really have no choice in the matter.”

According to parents, the trip costs each student more than $300.

Alliance Redwoods Executive Director Jim Blake told The Sacramento Bee in a statement: “We respect the non-religious standing of public schools and embrace when they bring their students to the Alliance Redwoods Outdoor Education Program. It would be inappropriate and against our policies to propagate our Christian worldview through the public school system.”

Alliiance Redwoods Camp Grounds is a 120-acre site in the redwoods 20 minutes inland from Sonoma Coast State Park. Purchased by a group of pastors in 1946, and run by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Colorado-based global organization says it has more than 500,000 members in 2,000 churches, and runs mission trips, international relief efforts and nearly 20 camps in the U.S.

The campground is home to three sites: the campgrounds, Alliance Redwoods Outdoor Education, and the popular zip-lining Sonoma Canopy Tours.

According to its website, the campground has routinely hosted families and conferences for recreational activities. Camp officials said several large tech firms and universities have held conferences on the site, and camp staffers run nonreligious environmental education programs for public and private schools.

Jason Sanders, who runs marketing and summer camps at Alliance Redwoods, said more than 120 public schools from across Northern California come through the program each year. Children are supervised by their own teachers and chaperones, he said.

Sanders said Alliance Redwoods isn’t trying to hide its faith or that a Christian organization owns the educational campsite.

“If we were crossing any lines, I am sure they wouldn’t come back,” Sanders said. “There is no political agenda or religious content in the science or academic curriculum.”

But the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist organization, sent a letter Nov. 2 to Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jorge Aguilar on behalf of some parents who complained.

The letter pointed out that the more than 4,000 annual public school campgoers can take trails citing biblical verse Ezekiel 43:2, and enjoy zip-lining activities labeled “Leap of Faith,” some of which are depicted on Alliance Redwoods’ website.

Last year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a similar letter to the superintendent of Dixie School District in San Rafael, which prompted the district to cancel its trips, according to documents obtained by The Bee.

The letter to Aguilar cites the campground’s website, stating that it requires some employees to be “born-again Christians with a Biblical lifestyle and an interest in maturing in one’s faith.”

Sanders said many people who work at the camp are not Christian, but some positions such as camp pastor or director have that requirement.

Sanders said the company fields calls about its religious affiliation. Since he began working at Alliance Redwoods in 2010, he said, he’s received a handful of questions from schools, and the company has been transparent.

“I always refer them to other districts and principals,” he said. “We appreciate the concerns and we don’t dodge any questions.”

Parents at Crocker Riverside Elementary say that while Alliance Redwoods is transparent about its identity, the school did not notify them about the campground’s religious affiliation.

“I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state and for public school to sanction a trip there without even at least alerting the parents is pretty amazing to me,” said parent Kenneth Cook-McKnight.

Cook-McKnight said that the school never brought up the campground’s religious affiliation, so he raised his concerns at this year’s parent-teacher organization meeting.

His son won’t be attending the trip with his class, Cook-McKnight said, and will either stay home or volunteer at the school.

Cook-McKnight said his concerns did nothing to change the PTO’s or the school’s plans for the trip, so parents began taking complaints to the Sacramento City Unified School District.

The district said the trip went through the appropriate approval process with no parents expressing concerns in previous years. The district’s legal counsel also “thoroughly reviewed and vetted those concerns and found them to have no legal merit,” district spokesman Alex Barrios said in a statement to The Bee.

“The district has an approval process in place to ensure all field trips are appropriate for children and serve an educational purpose,” Barrios said. “Many of the students we serve may not have access to a learning opportunity like this if it were not for the school district providing a field trip.”

El Dorado County resident Erick Nordquist teaches at a public school that takes its students to Alliance Redwoods. The school, he said, chose the campgrounds because of its academic and outdoor services and its high-quality program geared toward science education.

“We go to Alliance Redwoods because they provide a service and an outdoor education,” he said. “I found all of their staff to be very professional with students and adults. The religious aspect of their ownership never comes into play.”

Nordquist said his son went to the camp while attending school in another district. Nordquist also went to the camp and said he never came across any staff or personnel that pressed religious views on guests.

James Scott, whose son is also at Crocker Riverside Elementary, said Principal Daniel McCord was cooperative in offering an alternative trip to Sly Park that Scott and his son will attend on their own.

“Crocker should rethink putting people in a difficult situation,” Scott said. “If you believe in public education, paid for with tax money, then why should we all be put in a position where if we want to educate our kids in an environment then we have to pay a religious organization?”

While Sly Park and the Marin Headlands are not religiously affiliated, several other camps in Northern California are run by Christian organizations and offer services to the public, according to Sanders.

The Young Men’s Christian Association, popularly known as the YMCA or the Y, offers swim classes and summer camps in Sacramento. According to its website, the Bear Valley Y Camp offers youths an opportunity to “explore the outdoors, learn gold mining skills of early California settlers, build self-esteem, make lasting friendships and most importantly, have FUN!”

Winters, whose Crocker sixth-grader will attend the camp, said her sons have taken swim lessons at the YMCA and she sees a difference.

“It comes down to choice,” she said. “My public school district is forcing me to underwrite this religious organization.”

The Crocker Riverside trip to Alliance Redwoods is scheduled as planned.

Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.