A concerned community member has informed the state/church watchdog that the district allowed members of the Church of Hope to wander through schools all over the district to “cleanse” them.
“About 400 Church of Hope congregation members fanned out in small groups to perform prayer walks at 43 Marion County public schools on Sunday morning in advance of school opening day, Thursday, Aug. 10,” states a story in the local paper. “The prayer walk at each public school was part of the church’s annual ‘Go, Gather and Give’ faith in action outreach.”
This event was hosted by the district, as the paper reports. “School representatives” were present to lead church members through the schools, and students also took part. Brain Till, an associate pastor at Church of Hope, noted in the newspaper piece that his church had “partnered” with the district to put on this religious worship event.
The district should immediately cease partnering with churches to host religious worship events in its schools and ensure that this event does not recur in the future, FFRF is insisting.
“Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the legal counsel for Marion County Public Schools. “It is well settled that public schools may not show favoritism toward or coerce belief or participation in any religion.”
Government-sponsored religious exercise “has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court. Here, the district is displaying blatant favoritism towards religion over nonreligion by collaborating with a church to hold a sprawling religious worship event where hundreds of church members were given access to dozens of school facilities.
Furthermore, FFRF points out, the district serves a diverse population that consists of not only religious students, families, and employees but also atheists, agnostics, and those who are simply religiously unaffiliated. Associating with a local church and allowing church members access to all of its schools for the purposes of prayer sends an official message that excludes all nonreligious and non-Christian district students and community members. At least a third of Generation Z (those born after 1996) has no religion, with a recent survey revealing almost half of Gen Z qualifies as “Nones” (religiously unaffiliated).
All future school-sponsored events must be completely secular in order to respect the constitutional rights of students, families, and employees, FFRF is insisting. And it is filing an open records request for all records pertaining to the prayer walk.
“Marion County Public Schools must stop engaging with churches in these overt religious rituals,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “School officials need to immediately halt such unprofessional and embarrassing collaborations.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 2,000 members and the Central Florida Freethought Community chapter in Florida. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.