District “Keep Calm and Pray On” shirts and assembly crossed the line (March 14, 2014)

E.C. Reems School of Technology and Arts in Oakland, Calif., has concluded an investigation into a religious assembly and now agrees it was “inappropriate.”

A complainant contacted FFRF with information regarding a religious assembly which included kindergarteners as young as four. The assembly was intended to honor classmate Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old girl declared braindead after a tonsillectomy went tragically wrong. Her religious parents insist Jahi is not braindead. At the assembly, 250 young, impressionable students were given purple T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘#TeamJahi” and “Keep Calm and Pray On.”

According to a local news report, “The academy’s chief operating officer Lisa Blair said she has tried to honor Jahi’s family’s wishes by telling students that their classmate may still be alive, even though doctors say she is legally and clinically dead.”

Futhermore, Blair was on record saying, “Most kids are Christian here, and they believe that if you continue praying there’s always a possibility. The students understand the debate. They’re just choosing spirituality over science.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the Board of Directors, calling for an investigation into the assembly and informing the district why public school employees cannot ask students to pray:

“What happened to Jahi is a terrible tragedy and all hearts go out to her suffering relatives and friends. No child’s life should be cut short before it can truly begin. But such tragedies are not an excuse to violate the Constitution. Public school employees cannot tell students that, if only they pray hard enough to a particular god, their classmate will come back to life. Public school employees cannot force their personal religious beliefs on students.

“Public school employees cannot distribute, ask students to wear, or themselves don religious T-shirts instructing everyone to ‘pray on.’ We understand these shirts were donated, but public school employees distributed them in a public school at a school function, and it is our understanding that those employees encouraged students to wear the shirts and set an example by wearing the shirts themselves.”

On March 14, the District sent the findings of their investigation. It concluded that:

“Ms. Blair acknowledged that statements attributed to her [in a local newspaper] were accurately reported. . .

“Ms. Blair, however, does not believe that the article accurately reflects the assembly itself. . . However the District found that the statements made by Ms. Blair were inappropriate and the decision by administration to distribute shirts to the School was inappropriate. . . School administration will receive training regarding requirements for compliance regarding religion in public schools.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation