FFRF issues second warning to Ohio high school over school prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has dispatched a second letter to an Ohio school district reminding them of the unconstitutionality of school-sponsored prayer.

FFRF, a national state/church watchdog, originally sent a letter to the West Branch Local School Board in Beloit, Ohio, in January of 2018 after a complainant reported a Christian prayer was delivered over the loudspeaker before school-sponsored events.

Following the warning from FFRF, the board suspended prayer before school-sponsored events, instead instituting a more appropriate and constitutional moment of silence.

On Aug. 20, however, FFRF understands that the board voted to approve an addendum to the administrative guidelines providing a limited open forum for invocations at school events, which allows for “student-led prayers.” FFRF understands that this action was taken in order for the district to continue instituting prayer before its school events.

West Branch Local School District Superintendent Timothy Saxton has described the religious motivation behind the board’s action.

“I applaud the board’s decision, as it has taken a clear stand and feels that the tradition of allowing (prayer) before home varsity events is something that truly matters to our students and the West Branch Local School District’s strong faith-based community,” said Saxton.

According to FFRF’s complainant, on Aug. 24, a Christian prayer was broadcast over the loudspeaker before West Branch High School’s football game after the game’s announcer explained that a student would be leading everyone in an invocation, that it was not mandatory, and that it was “not school-sponsored.”

FFRF’s most recent letter points out that this practice remains unconstitutional and that this policy appears to be an attempt by the district to “skirt the Constitution and continue endorsing Christianity at school-sponsored events.”

“The board’s attempt to institute a ‘limited open forum for invocations’ does not cure this constitutional violation,” writes FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Christopher Line. “The Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events, even when student-led.”

FFRF is requesting that the district immediately end the practice of hosting prayer at school sponsored-events using district-owned equipment and a written response detailing the steps the district is taking to remedy this First Amendment violation.

“Imposing prayer on a captive audience at school-sponsored events is both unconstitutional and ethically impermissible,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “It is unnecessary and makes religious minorities and nonreligious citizens feel like outsiders at their own community events.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 32,000 members across the country, including more than 800 members in Ohio. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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