The Freedom From Religion Foundation has made certain that events hosted by two Wisconsin school districts will not engage in religious promotion.
South Shore Junior/Senior High School in Port Wing, Wis., is scheduled to host an Oct. 26 assembly for "Break the Grey," a group that addresses troubled-youth topics. The speaker at these events, Bill Ballenger, promotes Christian rock concerts organized by him, often on the same evening as the assemblies. Ballenger has stated that the assemblies are designed to get people to the rock performances, and has referred to the evening event in his web biography (since altered) as the "culminat[ion]" of the assembly.
It is unconstitutional for a public school district to allow outside adults to promote a religious event to a captive audience of students during a school-sponsored assembly.
"It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne recently wrote to Clendon Gustafson, administrator/principal of the South Shore School District, citing a number of cases. "In Lee v. Weisman, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the prohibition of school-sponsored religious activities beyond classrooms to all school functions."
While public schools may host speakers to address bullying and other subjects, those events cannot be tied to after-school religious revivals. It is inappropriate to take instructional time away from students to expose them to Christian proselytization, regardless of any secular message the speaker claims to be delivering, FFRF emphasized.
The South Shore School District was persuaded by FFRF's arguments and is taking FFRF's objections so seriously that it responded in a multipart email.
"Thank you for your email and letter outlining your concerns about the Break the Grey group and their upcoming presentation at one of our schools," Gustafson replied. "As a district administrator of a public school district, one of my important duties is to make sure that the students' constitutional rights are protected, and the 'Establishment' Clause of the Constitution is certainly on my mind. I also understand the concept of separation of church and state and make sure that is happening in our school district."
Gustafson then outlined the many steps he's taking to make sure that religion doesn't enter into the assembly event:
"1. I will forward your email and letter to the Break the Grey organization, and reiterate your concerns to them.
2. We will contact Bill Ballenger and make it clear to him that any stories or songs that he shares cannot promote any religion or his upcoming events.
3. We will contact Bill Ballenger and make it clear to him that he may not distribute any tickets to his events to our students.
4. If Bill is unable to promise this, we will cancel the event. If he begins to promote religion during the assembly, the assembly will immediately be terminated and the students will be sent back to class."
Break the Grey is also scheduled to hold assemblies at Hayward High School and Hayward Middle School in Hayward, Wis., on Oct. 25. FFRF alerted the Hayward Community School District and received similar assurances from Superintendent Craig Olsen that the group would not be permitted to promote their evening religious event or otherwise evangelize students.
FFRF hails the school officials' adherence to the Constitution.
"We're impressed by the district administrators' fidelity to constitutional principles," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We trust that they'll make sure that the students aren't fed a dose of religion at the assembly."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Wisconsin-based organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 members, including 1,300-plus in Wisconsin.