FFRF eyes suit over Georgia school prayer abuses

“One of Georgia’s most charming cities” is how Swainsboro (pop. 7.600), which is between Atlanta, Augusta and Macon, bills itself. But its school district, Emanual County Schools, appears to have a most uncharming habit: inflicting daily prayer upon its captive audience of children.

“Jamie Doe,” a kindergartner at Swainsboro Primary School (motto: “Where Cubs Become Tigers!”) was singled out by the teacher after Jamie’s parents, “Jane and John Doe,” complained about daily classroom prayer. The Does pulled Jamie out of school by the end of the year.

Jamie’s first-grade sibling, “Jesse Doe,” was also subjected all semester long to pressure to pray. Jesse’s teacher said outright that Jesse’s mother was a bad person for not believing in God.
The parents are FFRF members who contacted FFRF for legal support shortly after the 2014-15 school year started. Letters from FFRF and complaints by the parents have not ended the violations. A lawsuit, as this goes to press, is being prepared for federal court.

The Establishment Clause violations were daily. Before lunch, Jamie’s teacher, Cel Thompson, asked students to bow their heads, fold their hands and pray, while leading the class in a “call and response” prayer: “God our Father, we give thanks, for our many blessings. Amen.”

In Jesse’s first-grade class, teacher Kaytrene Bright led students in this daily prayer: “God is great. Let us thank you for our food. Thank you for our daily prayer. Thank you. Amen.”

The parents contacted Principal Valorie Watkins in August 2014 to object to the prayers. Rather than stopping them, the teachers told the Doe children to leave their classrooms and sit in the hallway while the rest of the class prayed. Jesse reported that the teacher “used her mean voice” when instructing Jesse to wait in the hall. The teacher also unnecessarily singled Jesse out by telling the class that Jesse can’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance since it contains the words “under God,” although the parents had not discussed the pledge with the teacher.

When the Does renewed their objections a few days later, the principal said other parents who didn’t want their children to participate in prayer had been “OK” with the “solution” of leaving the room. The Does explained that was unacceptable, but daily prayers continued.

Jamie’s teacher next announced to the entire class that Jamie wasn’t allowed to pray to God, which resulted in Jamie being teased.

FFRF objected strongly in an Aug. 20 complaint letter, pointing to more than 65 years of Supreme Court precedent against religious devotions and proselytizing in public schools. Despite a promising reply from the district’s attorney, the school continued to organize Christian prayers. Eventually, the parents withdrew Jamie. Home schooling Jamie has substantially burdened Jane Doe, who has three younger children to supervise at home.

Pressure on Jesse escalated in December. Jesse’s science teacher encouraged Jesse to “make a good decision” regarding prayer in the classroom. Jesse’s physical education teacher likewise encouraged Jesse to begin praying. The teacher even held Jesse back from recess to talk about Bright’s views of God, explaining that God loves Jesse and made the world. The teacher indicated to Jesse that Jesse’s mother was a bad person for not believing in God. Around this time Jesse gave in and started participating in classroom prayers.

“It should not be necessary for FFRF to sue over such an obvious violation of specific Supreme Court decisions barring devotions from our public schools,” noted Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “No child in our secular school system or their parents should be subjected to prayer or stigmatized when their parents speak up to defend the Establishment Clause.

But unfortunately, it appears a lawsuit will be the only way to protect the freedom of conscience of these young children.”

“If anyone needs a picture drawn on how destructive religion is in our public schools, this situation is a perfect example,” added Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president. “The fact that such abusive practices are continuing in our public schools 53 years after the first Supreme Court decision against school prayer shows how important FFRF’s legal work is.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation