End constitutional infringements, FFRF warns Ala. district

Dothan

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is spotlighting multiple constitutional violations occurring in an Alabama school district that a concerned parent has brought to its attention.

Dothan Preparatory Academy (in the Dothan City Schools system) has been using its Remind App to send out prayer requests to parents and to promote religious events, the parent told FFRF.

“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Acting Superintendent Dennis Coe. “Advancing and promoting religion is exactly what a school district does when it asks district parents to pray with their children or promotes religious prayer events.”

Religion is a divisive force in public schools, FFRF reminds the school district. An endorsement of religion and religious events alienates those students, families, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school. This excludes a sizable portion of the district’s community, since 35 percent of Americans are not Christian, including the 26 percent who are not religiously affiliated.

FFRF’s complainant has also reported that the Dothan City Schools Board of Education begins all of its meetings with a Christian prayer led by a member of the board. The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events, FFRF emphasizes to the school district.

“It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings,” Line writes to Coe. “This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In Indian River School District, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals emphasized that school board prayer is analogous to other school prayer cases when it comes to protecting children from the coercion of school-sponsored prayer, which is heightened in the context of public schools.”

FFRF successfully litigated the most recent case striking down a school board prayer practice, in which Chino Valley (Calif.) School District’s board paid out more than $280,000 in fees and costs. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed here that Establishment Clause concerns are heightened in the context of public schools “because children and adolescents are just beginning to develop their own belief systems, and because they absorb the lessons of adults as to what beliefs are appropriate or right.”

Students and parents have the right — and often have reason — to participate in school board meetings, FFRF underscores. It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe but which their school board members clearly do.

FFRF is asking Dothan City Schools to inform it of the steps it is taking to remedy these constitutional violations.

“Such breaches of the Constitution have real-life implications, as can be seen by the parent who has been compelled to report it to us,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “School districts need to keep in mind the sensitivities of all of their students and families.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members across the country, including hundreds of members in Alabama. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of 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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