California school district prohibits staff participation in student religious activities

Staff members at Chino High School had participated in an annual “See You at the Pole” event, where students meet at their school’s outdoor flagpole to pray before classes begin on the fourth Wednesday of September. The “See You at the Pole” movement started in Texas in 1990, as ostensibly “student-initiated” and “student-led” religious expression. Far from being a yearly spontaneous eruption of religiosity by devout public school students, the event has been carefully nurtured and orchestrated by youth pastors, churches and national religious associations.

Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney, noted in a letter to the district [Oct. 1, 2010]: “It is grossly inappropriate for teachers, other public school employees or outside adults to actively participate in or promote these student-run religious organizations.” Markert pointed out that the Supreme Court has “stated that public employees, including teachers and principals, should refrain from actively participating in religious activities while acting within their governmental role to avoid any perception of government endorsement of religion and/or excessive entanglement with religion.”

The district responded that its investigation confirmed FFRF’s complaint, and undertook the following steps to correct the problem: “Principals were directed to enforce the Establishment Clause to ensure that staff members are not involved in student-run prayer groups. . . . staff members [were instructed to] not promote, lead or participate in such activities, [the violation of which] could result in disciplinary action by the district.” Additionally, the district confirmed it was reviewing and updating its Board policies regarding “religious diversity/religious freedom at school” (Nov. 16, 2010). — Bonnie Gutsch

Freedom From Religion Foundation