FFRF stops weekly Florida school flagpole prayer

Rev. Ron Baker, a Baptist pastor who has been praying with students at schools for 12 years, is persona non grata after an FFRF letter in October on behalf of a local complainant. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt alerted Superintendent Ben Wortham to an illegal “Prayer Around the Flagpole” taking place at 8:15 a.m. every Monday at Clay Hill Elementary in Green Cove Springs, Fla.

The Sept. 30 staff newsletter from Principal Larry Davis quoted from a Christian minister who said “Our children need God back in schools. . . . The First Amendment was for Christianity, not other religions.”

Davis also stated, erroneously, that “Our prayer around the flagpole gatherings are [sic] permissible because they are community led and take place outside of class time.”

“Despite Davis’ disclaimer that this is permissible, the unabashed promotion of the event in the school newsletter and the repeated use of the possessive ‘our’ would lead any reasonable observer to infer that the event is directly sponsored by Clay Hill Elementary and the School District of Clay County,” Schmitt wrote. “It is grossly inappropriate for principals, teachers, other public school employees or outside adults to actively participate in or promote student–run religious organizations and activities.”

Schmitt noted the historical and factual errors in the newsletter: “That a faculty member of an elementary school — a principal, no less — would attempt to pass such egregiously false information off as fact displays an utter lack of respect for the school environment and the education of the hundreds of children entrusted to his care.”

While many in the community rallied around the principal and the flagpole prayer, school district attorney J. Bruce Bickner did not. In an Oct. 27 legal opinion requested by the school, Bickner said teachers and administrators may not pray with or in front of students. “Other adults, (i.e., the minister) may not come onto the campus and prayer with students. There is no right of a minister or anyone else to come onto school grounds to lead anyone in prayer. Schools, especially elementary schools, are a nonpublic/closed forum.”

Bickner called the prayer “a clear violation of the Establishment Clause and a clear case of endorsement of religion generally and Christianity particularly.” He listed nine ways in which the weekly prayer events violate the law.

Baker and the school district reached an agreement Nov. 10 that he won’t pray at Clay Hill or at three other elementary schools. “Reverend Baker is free to find locations off of School Board property but in proximity to each of the schools at which to continue his prayer meetings,” the agreement said. “The School Board, through their attorney, will contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation to ensure that they are apprised of the resolution of this matter.”

See FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor debate Baker on national Fox TV, where she called his conduct “predatory,” at ffrf.org/news/video/.

Freedom From Religion Foundation