PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Accusing the Milton Hershey School of barely disguising its sectarian activities, two former employees claim in a federal complaint that the philanthropic boarding school threatens its nonevangelical staff and students with “isolation, death, hell, and demonic possession.”
Husband-and-wife plaintiffs Bradley and Val Darrington brought their suit against the academy Wednesday, with help from the Philadelphia law firm Console Mattiacci. They say the school is supposed to be nondenominational but that they were fired on Dec. 29, 2017, because they complained about the religious programming they had observed in their four years on the job.
Funded by the personal fortune of the founder of the Hershey Chocolate Company, the Milton Hersey School has an endowment of $13.8 billion and annually enrolls around 2,000 poor children, kindergarten through high school, free of charge. Across the school’s thousands of acres of land, students are dispersed among approximately 170 homes to live with sets of married “house parents,” who are responsible for children during their nonschool hours.
The Darringtons say they were two of approximately 60 house parents assigned to work with high school boys at Milton Hershey. Their complaint comes after reports over the last few years of house parents forcing gay students to watch anti-gay videos and engage in prayer sessions denouncing their homosexuality.
While the Darringtons’ attorneys declined to be interviewed for this article, representatives for the Milton Hershey School did not return a call requesting comment.
Bradley, who identifies as humanist, says he reported the school to the Pennsylvania Department of Child and Youth Services last year after getting nowhere with approximately 40 internal reports to school administrators since August 2015. A copy of Bradley’s Childline report, as it is described in the complaint, is included as an exhibit to the complaint.
“My employment is significantly different than was presented to me in recruitment, interviews, training, and in company policies,” it states.
Telling the commission that the school did not respect his personal beliefs, Bradley described one mandatory staff and student meeting from November 2017 where a pastor characterized Bradley’s personal beliefs as “Devil Worship.”
When Bradley reported this to the head of his department, he says that his supervisor replied: “Thanks for sharing.”
“There is consistent sectarian religion influence at my work, including prayer in staff meetings, proselytizing music, and religious proselytism by others,” Bradley told the commission. “Against my conscience, I am required to teach and supervise sectarian religious programs to children.”
The Darringtons say school officials assured them during the hiring process that religiously training or converting students was not part of the house-parent role. Nevertheless they say the school required them to oversee mandatory evangelical readings and prayer sessions with assigned students. Additionally, house parents were allegedly required to participate in mandatory religious training where speakers suggested that those who did not believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible were going to hell.
At one such event, according to the complaint, an Evangelical pastor suggested the “Christian nation” was at “war” with nonbelievers.
The Darringtons say this speaker degraded science and evolution, and criticized gay and transgender persons, as well as those with AIDS.
Despite more than half of Milton Hershey students having no religious alignment on their student admission forms, the Darringtons say that the school also facilitated mandatory religious camps and retreats by Evangelical Christian organizations meant to convert employees and students.
The complaint states that the only reason the school gave for terminating the Darringtons were Bradley’s efforts to complain of religious discrimination and its abusive impact on the school. The Darringtons contend their termination was retaliatory for reporting discriminatory practices and have filed two charges alleging the school violated Title VII, via religious discrimination, and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act.