At the city of Española-run school supply drive and touch-a-truck on Aug. 4, Mormon missionaries and church members distributed backpacks, operated religious carnival games, and staffed an evangelizing booth in the Plaza de Española’s prime real estate just in front of the supply distribution area.
“This is God’s country,” lyrics from country music artist Blake Shelton, boomed over the speakers.
To receive free backpacks, which were donated by the city and a variety of community groups, parents were required to complete a survey from the Libre Institute, a Koch brothers-funded sister organization to the Libre Initiative, a political nonprofit aiming to pull Latino voters to the Republican Party.
City-funded Project R.A.C.E. organized the event and advertised it as a school supply drive with opportunities for children to observe and sit in vehicles from various public safety departments. Promotional materials made no mention of religious or political activities.
Project R.A.C.E. Administrative Clerk and a head organizer for the first annual drive Miranda Lopez said they gave out about 1,300 backpacks stuffed with school supplies and the remaining 200 will be distributed through the community.
Staff from the Española Police Department and the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office brought department vehicles like fire trucks and police cars for children to see and sit in.
Felicia Rodriguez, the main organizer from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said they originally reached out to the city government for a permit to host their own event with the Libre Institute in the Plaza to evangelize and give away backpacks, and city representatives offered to merge their giveaway events.
“Our initial idea was to bring the Gospel to the community,” Rodriguez said, “The backpacks were just a plus.”
To enter a raffle through the city, children were required to get initials on a small card at five activities throughout the plaza, including the games which Rodriguez said were intended to be religious. Each game had an accompanying poster with a verse from the Bible or the Book of Mormon. The table at which backpacks were given away also bore a biblical poster.
“All of our games are gospel-based,” she said. “Each game has coordinating Bible verses.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler said while partnerships with faith organizations can benefit government efforts, there is opportunity for abuse.
“If the city is requiring participation in religious proselytizing games to receive benefits at a city event, that would be unconstitutional,” she said.
Lopez initially claimed there were no religious activities at the event but later said she saw no issues with the activities that occurred. She said there was no prior discussion of religious games or booths.
Rodriguez said she had multiple meetings with Lopez in which they explicitly discussed the nature of the church’s games.
Lopez said she placed only two limitations on event sponsors.
“The only restriction I had was medical clinics to not hand out any Narcan, birth control, stuff like that,” she said.
Project R.A.C.E. is a drug prevention initiative and Narcan is a live-saving medication which treats overdoses and cannot be used recreationally.
The Libre Institute also distributed flyers promoting “educational freedom,” including charter schools. Institute Foundation Director Ivette Diaz said having multiple options like charter schools and private schools in an area could improve education across the board.
“Competition brings out the best in every school,” she said. “When you have to earn your attendees, earn the folks who are buying into your school, you have to adjust.”
The Institute’s survey included two questions about education and one on what political issues are most important, as well as fields in which the person filling out the survey can provide their contact information.
Diaz, who worked in the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the data would be shared with the city but could also be shared with the Libre Initiative, which works more openly to swing Latino voters right and has run ads attacking Democratic politicians and the Affordable Care Act.
Project R.A.C.E. Student Outreach Coordinator Justine Valencia said employees from the Institute represented the organization as a faith-based community aid group and Project R.A.C.E. staff did not learn of the group’s political ties until an interview with a Rio Grande SUN reporter, days before the event.
Diaz said the Institute employee who served as the main point of contact with the city quit the week before the event.
Española Mayor Javier Sanchez said the drive was a great experience which provided crucial supplies to the community and they would debrief to discuss room for improvement for next year.
“We would probably need to do an improved job all the way around to ensure that one group doesn’t get recognized more than another,” he said. “We’ll learn a lot of great things on this to make it better for next year.”
Valencia said supply and backpack donors for the event included Rio Arriba County, the city, the church, the Institute, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Española Firefighters Union.
Española Valley High School does not allow backpacks so organizers gave high schoolers drawstring bags with supplies.