Ark. public school won’t force players to prioritize religion after FFRF complains

South Side Bee Branch School District basketball players will no longer be threatened with discipline if they don’t prioritize religion, due to an intervention from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The South Side Bee Branch high school basketball team was reportedly required to sign a letter that was then distributed to teachers affirming the priorities “in which [players] must abide by to be a member of [the] team.” Listed first on the priorities was religion. The letter explained: “Failure to abide by this results in punishment and/or dismissal from the team.”

Public schools, FFRF’s letter of complaint pointed out, may not create a religious requirement to participate in a school-sponsored activity. Requiring students to abide by a list of “priorities” that includes “religion” and threatening to punish students and dismiss them from the team if they don’t prioritize religion is a serious violation of students’ rights of conscience.

FFRF urged the South Side Bee School District to ensure that employees are not promoting religion in any district athletic programs in violation of constitutional rights of students.

“This list clearly demonstrates that South Side Bee Branch basketball coaches prefer religion over nonreligion and require their basketball players to have the same preference,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Aaron Hosman. “The basketball program’s promotion of religion over nonreligion undeniably turns any nonbelieving student, staff member or fan into an outsider.”

Hosman has sent a response letter to FFRF, assuring that the district will not continue the practice of requiring students to sign a letter affirming that they prioritize religion.

“The South Side School District will continue, as a learning/writing activity, to ask its students to thank those who have been instrumental in their development as human beings, whether teachers of individuals,” Hosman writes. “At the same time, we will refrain from bringing religion and the threat of discipline and punishment into that learning activity.”

FFRF commends the district for swiftly correcting this violation.

“We applaud the district for amending this activity to be inclusive of all students, regardless of their religious beliefs,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor comments. “Religious education ought to be left in the hands of parents and their children.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including in Arkansas. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, 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.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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