The American Humanist Association threatened to sue Missouri’s Fayette School District and several school officials on Wednesday for their alleged roles in holding morning religious ceremonies with students on school grounds every week for at least the last year.
After receiving information from a student, the AHA’s legal foundation, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, drafted a legal explanation (PDF) of why government officials may not actively supervise any sort of religious ceremony while on the job, citing dozens of court cases to justify their demand that the district cease and desist.
“Every Friday morning one of the teachers invites students to come into her room just before first period begins… and prays with them and gives out breakfast,” William Burgess, legal coordinator for the AHA’s foundation, explained to Raw Story.”It appears that the principal makes an announcement that students should go to Mrs. Pope’s classroom for devotionals, which is how they describe the kind of prayer that’s going on there.”
Burgess added that while math teacher Gwen Pope‘s weekly devotionals at Fayette High School appear voluntary, between “both the teacher promoting this practice to students and the principal announcing it, I think it’s fair to say the school is putting this on… This is so unconstitutional that they have to know it is, but they’re doing it anyway.”
Pope is retiring in 2014 after a 38-year career in teaching, according to Missouri newspaper The Democrat Leader. Fayette Superintendent Jim Judd, who is also leaving his post effective June 30 for a job at Truman State University, explained to Raw Story in an email that the matter “will be investigated and addressed according to Board of Education Policy.” A person answering phones at the district was not familiar with the AHA’s letter and the school had no comment.
The letter says that not only could the district and school face legal action, but so too could Pope and the school’s principal, Darren Rapert, for their individual roles in allegedly violating the Establishment Clause, which blocks laws establishing an official state religion and bars government employees from promoting or participating in religious activities while on the job. The letter also claims Mrs. Pope displays a Bible on her desk while teaching class.
“Teachers simply cannot participate in prayers with students at school, nor can they promote their religious beliefs in any other way to their students,” Burgess and fellow AHA legal consultant Monica Miller wrote. “That attendance at the morning devotionals is optional does not change the fact that they violate the Establishment Clause. It is the school’s decision to promote and affiliate itself with Christianity that is unconstitutional. The school has endorsed the religious message of the prayers by permitting a teacher to deliver them to students at school.”
“Students are free to pray in their individual capacity any time during the school day,” Burgess told Raw Story. “That’s clearly private activity. What is not appropriate is for the school to ask students to pray, and that includes teachers, coaches, principals, etc. … Students can gather privately on their own so long as the school is not giving them privileged access to facilities.”
[“Stock Photo: Young Woman Praying With Rosary In Hand” on Shutterstock.]
Updated from an original version to include a quote from Fayette Superintendent James F. Judd.