The Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting that unconstitutional prayers at a Dallas-Fort Worth area school district's teacher events stop immediately.
A concerned district employee contacted FFRF to report that on Aug. 10, during an in-school training day at Brewer High School in the White Settlement Independent School District, a school official led the assembled teachers in prayer in the school cafeteria. A few days later, on Aug. 14, an auditorium full of district employees was reportedly led in prayer as part of the district's mandatory staff convocation event. In both instances, the prayers were exclusively Christian in nature, ending with "in Jesus' name we pray."
FFRF is seeking an assurance that no prayer will be scheduled or endorsed at future district-sponsored events.
"As a government entity, the White Settlement Independent School District has a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover writes to White Settlement Independent School District Superintendent Frank Molinar. "The Supreme Court has said time and again that the First Amendment 'mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.' ... When the district invites an outside religious leader to give a Christian prayer at an official district-sponsored event, or when district administrators themselves lead such a prayer, employees will understandably conclude that the district is endorsing religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths."
Federal courts have held that mandatory meetings for government employees cannot promote religion, FFRF adds. By including prayer at staff training events, the district violates its obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion. Regardless of who delivers the prayer, the district has granted its seal of approval to the speaker's exclusively religious message.
Moreover, the prayer would remain illegal even if employees were told that they could "opt out" of participation. The Supreme Court has summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.
Besides the legal issues, there are many good policy reasons to end this prayer practice, FFRF contends. Prayer at government-sponsored events is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. While individuals are certainly free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way, calling upon district employees to participate in prayer is coercive and beyond the scope of a secular employer. Such prayer creates acrimony, makes minority religious and nonreligious employees feel like outsiders in their own place of work, and shows unconstitutional governmental preference for a particular religion. Not only is it rude and insensitive, but it may also constitute workplace harassment.
To avoid the constitutional concerns and the divisiveness these prayers cause within the White Settlement Independent School District, FFRF's solution is simple: Discontinue official, government prayers at employee convocation and other district-sponsored events.
"A public school district has no right to impose a sectarian prayer or any prayer on its employees," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "This primitive practice needs to stop at once."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members across the country, including over 1,200 in Texas. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.