The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking for an end to an unconstitutional daily prayer ritual taking place at a Texas public charter school.
A concerned parent of a student at Leadership Academy in Tyler, Texas, contacted the state/church watchdog to report that teachers within the school are imposing daily prayer before lunch on elementary school students. Each school day, either a teacher selects a student to lead a prayer or a teacher leads a prayer before students begin their lunch.
Public school teachers may not lead their students in prayer, encourage students to pray, participate in student-initiated prayer or otherwise endorse religion to students, FFRF reminds the school. The Supreme Court has continually struck down teacher- or school-led prayer in public schools.
"As a public charter school, Leadership Academy has an obligation under the law to make certain that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion,'" to quote the Supreme Court, FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover writes to Louise Dyer, head of the Leadership Academy. "The Supreme Court has recognized that '[f]amilies entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.'"
Teachers have access to a captive audience of students due to their position as public educators. Therefore, the school has a duty to regulate religious proselytizing during the school day.
Given how young and impressionable these students are (Leadership Academy is a K-6 school), this violation of the law is particularly egregious, FFRF asserts. In 2015, FFRF settled a lawsuit with Emanuel County School District in Georgia over a similar issue. Two different teachers there had led students in prayer before lunch. Given how clear the law is on the illegality of this practice, those teachers were sued in their official and personal capacities, as were district administrators. The lawsuit ended with Emanuel teachers receiving educational training on the Establishment Clause and our complainants being financially compensated for the harm they suffered. There is no reason for Leadership Academy to invite a similar lawsuit here.
Nothing in the law prevents students, teachers or school employees from freely exercising their religion on their own time and in their own way, FFRF declares. But a public school itself must not promote a decidedly religious ritual to a captive student audience, thereby isolating and excluding those students who are nonreligious and misusing authority to promote religious views.
Any teachers engaging in or promoting this practice at Leadership Academy must be immediately instructed to cease scheduling prayers at once, FFRF insists.
"Children at this age of varied backgrounds must not be made to suffer the imposition of beliefs that they may very well disagree with but have no power to protest," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. She adds that there is no excuse for this violation to be occurring, given 70 years of solid Supreme Court decisions baring religious instruction in public schools.
The Freedom From National Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members across the country, including over 1,300 in Texas. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.