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Hershey School house parents sue charity over religion, retaliation

The Philadelphia federal suit is the latest action bringing attention to an apparent evangelical fervor at the free Milton Hershey School, the nation's richest private school.

The Milton Hershey School is a boarding school for poor children, mostly from Pennsylvania.
The Milton Hershey School is a boarding school for poor children, mostly from Pennsylvania.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

A husband-and-wife parenting team at the Milton Hershey School have sued the multibillion-dollar charity for poor children, claiming that they were fired after complaining that the institution repeatedly forced them to attend evangelical Christian sessions, retreats, or chapel with students.

Bradley and Val Darrington, who lived on the campus in Central Pennsylvania as surrogate parents for about 10 children, claim discrimination and retaliation in the suit, filed this month in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Bradley Darrington reported the school to the Pennsylvania Department of Children and Youth Services, alleging psychological abuse, after attending a mandatory chapel service last November during which, the suit says, a pastor told school employees and students: "The Bible says that when we choose not to follow God's way, we are — in effect — following the way of the world — which is the way of the devil."

Derogatory comments were made toward people with HIV/AIDS and homosexuals during the religious sessions, the suit says.

Hershey School spokesperson Lisa Scullin said in a statement Wednesday that the "Milton Hershey School will defend itself vigorously against these meritless allegations. We are confident that the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, after conducting its own investigation, correctly dismissed the Darringtons' claims."

The EEOC dismissed the Darringtons' complaint to that agency in July, after its investigation failed to establish violations of law.

She added that the "Darringtons know why their employment was terminated, and it had nothing to do with religious discrimination. We are confident it will become very clear as to why they could no longer work at MHS when we are afforded our day in court." The school's full statement can be read here.

Katherine C. Oeltjen, one of the Philadelphia lawyers who represent the Darringtons, had no comment. Her firm, Console Mattiacci, specializes in employment law.

The Darrington suit brings added attention to religious fervor at the nation's richest private school, which has 2,000 students and heavily recruits in impoverished neighborhoods in Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania. Students live in suburban-style homes in the Hershey area, overseen by house parents who are school employees.

Earlier this year, in Harrisburg published a lengthy story about socially conservative evangelicalism on the campus. In 2017, the Inquirer and Daily News published stories on two male students who said they were forced to watch anti-gay Christian videos.

Scullin said in her statement, "We maintain a diverse and inclusive community on our campus, and our curriculum is intentionally designed to help students develop the life skills they need to become successful leaders and compassionate global citizens. Religious education is one part of the holistic education we provide our students."

According to the suit, the Hershey School "threatened its nonevangelical Christian employees and students with isolation, death, hell, and demonic possession." It says 55 percent of Hershey students say they have no religious preference at the time of admission.

The school says on its website that "education in the Judeo-Christian faith, the heritage of the school's founders, is part of the MHS program and includes daily devotions and Sunday chapel services."