The Freedom From Religion Foundation has serious concerns about a possibly unconstitutional tie-up between a Texas school district and local clergy.
On April 5, the Grand Prairie Independent School District hosted an event called the "Spring Ministerial Alliance Breakfast" to which it invited "all local ministers and pastors to join us for a FREE breakfast as we discuss ways we can partner together to build a better Grand Prairie community."
FFRF wants to ensure that such partnerships with area religious groups do not allow for these groups to promote their personal religious beliefs to district students. When the district seeks out partnerships with area religious leaders, to the exclusion of other community members, FFRF warns, it creates the appearance of religious endorsement.
"It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion," Associate Counsel Sam Grover writes to Superintendent Susan Simpson Hull. "The details of any such partnership may raise additional constitutional concerns, as it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders unique access to its students. Creating a partnership specifically geared toward churches entangles the district with those churches' religious messages."
Courts, including the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (under whose jurisdiction the school district falls), have repeatedly struck down public school practices that affiliate public schools with religious groups and religious instruction.
It is up to parents to determine the religious or nonreligious upbringing of their children and to decide whether they want their children exposed to youth ministers and other church representatives, FFRF emphasizes. The district's obligation not to endorse religion is particularly important today, when 24 percent of all Americans and 38 percent of younger Americans are nonreligious, with 21 percent of those born after 1999 — i.e., all of the district's current students — specifically identifying as either atheist or agnostic. Any school partnership geared toward religious engagement is explicitly excluding this significant, growing segment of the Grand Prairie school community.
"Cash-strapped public schools shouldn't be offering Christian clergy free breakfasts or special invitations," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Favoritism shown toward them marginalizes a huge portion of the student population."
Religious leaders can equally participate in any secular programs offered within the district, of course, but when the district seeks out partnerships with ministers and pastors, it entangles itself with their religious messages, FFRF emphasizes. FFRF is asking the district to end any planned partnerships that allow religious leaders to promote religion to students and make it clear to all volunteers that they may not proselytize while interacting with students.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with the purposes of protecting the constitutional separation between state and church and educating the public on matters relating to nontheism. It currently has more than 33,000 members across the country, including over 1,300 in Texas.