Can we even make it to the beginning of school without a controversy over public school officials and representatives promoting religion and religious events to students? Apparently not, as one Alabama school district decided not to wait for the first day before hosting a prayer service on campus.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to school officials in DeKalb County warning that a planned “back to school worship service” scheduled for August 4 in the Fyffe High School gym would violate the separation of church and state. They alleged that school officials were actively promoting the event and that it was organized by faculty members:
The District should make certain that its representatives are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by encouraging them to engage in prayer during an event designed to blur the lines between religion and the public schools.
School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible “because it sends the ancillary message to… nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”
Despite that message of warning, the event went forward, with reportedly hundreds gathered at the school gym for a worship service for students. The school’s Facebook feed posted, “Please join us in praying for God’s protective hand to be over our schools, facilities, and students.” Still, county school superintendent Jason Barnett insisted the school was not engaged in promoting the worship service, and he maintains that faculty were not involved in organizing it.
Predictably, the outcry over FFRF’s complaint generated substantial public support for school officials and the religious event. The backlash even found its way into the political realm, as Alabama Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville pledged his support for the back-to-school worship service. He also promised that if elected, he will – on his first day in office – propose a constitutional amendment “to protect prayer in schools.”
First of all, prayer is already very well-protected in the Constitution! Even in schools, students are free to pray on their own or in groups on school grounds and during the school day. What is unlawful is for public school officials to lead or encourage prayer among children. That is a job for their parents and clergy. Why would we want our principals telling our kids how and when to pray?
Second of all, has Tuberville seen what it takes to pass a constitutional amendment? When it comes to school prayer, that’s not going to happen. And for good reason. Here’s an idea: let’s work on defending and enforcing the religion clauses we already have – both of them – including and especially where our children our concerned.
For a quick overview of how religious liberty is protected in our public schools, BJC has a one-page guide available online.