FFRF ends unconstitutional pastor-led prayers at South Dakota school

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has successfully intervened to keep religion out of assemblies in South Dakota’s Miller School District.

A concerned district employee informed FFRF that a pastor opened and closed the district’s Veterans Day assembly on Nov. 9 with prayers. The assembly reportedly took place during the school day on district property and required compulsory attendance by the entire student body, grades pre-K through 12. The pastor asked the audience of students and staff to stand before he began the assembly with the following prayer:
Father, we thank you that we were formed as one nation under God with liberty and justice for all. Thank you for those principles and Lord, we just ask you today that you just guide and direct the leaders of this country. Father, I pray for those in service that were disabled in one way or another that you would just bring peace to them, Lord. Just be with them and touch them, guide them and direct them in Jesus’ name Amen.

The pastor also gave the second prayer in Jesus’ name. Additionally, the pastor made religious remarks throughout the assembly, including telling the audience of students that, “The Bible says, ‘We’re faithful in the little things, be faithful in the big things.’ I want to leave you today the idea of being faithful. To your country, to your God and to yourself.”

FFRF strongly objected to the prayers in a letter sent to the Miller School District.

“In order to comply with the Constitution, the district must investigate this matter and ensure that no future school-sponsored events include prayer,” FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence wrote to Superintendent Eric Norden.

Students have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination in their public schools, including when participating in school-sponsored events, FFRF emphasized. School officials may not invite a clergy member to give any type of prayer, invocation, benediction or sermon at a school-sponsored event. The prayers delivered at this school-sponsored assembly were inappropriate and violated the First Amendment rights of all students, staff and community members in attendance.

Additionally, the district displayed clear favoritism towards religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths. The district serves a diverse population with diverse religious beliefs, including Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics. 37 percent of the American population is non-Christian, including the almost 30 percent that is nonreligious. At least a third of Generation Z have no religion, with a recent survey revealing almost half of Gen Z qualify as religiously unaffiliated.

Due to FFRF’s letter, the district took action.

“I want to assure you that we have discussed this issue with our attorney, and we are committed to ensuring that there will be no future violations of the constitutional principle of separation between state and church in the Miller School District,” Norden wrote in reply.

FFRF is pleased that the district has promised remedial action after the state/church watchdog’s warning.

“Allowing a pastor to lead multiple prayers at a school assembly is a clear constitutional infringement,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The district should be more mindful of the speakers that present at mandatory assemblies in the future.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation serves as the nation’s largest association of freethinkers, with 40,000 members across the country, including members in South Dakota, and works as a state/church watchdog to safeguard the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

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