Southern superintendents put on notice re: illegal prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent educational memos to all the public school superintendents (396) in Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky reminding them that official prayer at school-sponsored events is illegal and urging districts to monitor for violations. There has been immediate cessation of school–initiated prayer in at least one school district in Mississippi.

FFRF has 17,000 members nationwide, including members in Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky, and works to protect the constitutional principle of state/church separation. FFRF has received many complaints about prayer at in public schools in these states.

"It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead prayers at public high school events. The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal teacher or school-led prayer in public schools," said FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor in a memo to school superintendents.

FFRF has celebrated several legal victories halting school prayer in recent months. Morehouse Parish Schools (La.) cancelled school-organized prayer at a graduation ceremony this spring after receiving a letter of complaint on behalf of students from FFRF. FFRF letters brought an end to football game prayer at Bell County Schools (Ky.) in August and two other Kentucky school districts since then. DeSoto County Schools (Miss.) halted prayer at athletic events at the start of the fall term after receiving FFRF's request to end the illegal action. Each of these actions brought forth new complaints of state-sponsored prayer by parents and students.

The “[school] sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,’” as stated by the Supreme Court in Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe.

After FFRF halted football prayer in several Tennessee school districts late last year and this year, it sent memos about the state of the law to 132 Tennessee superintendents.

In response to the 151 memos sent to Mississippi superintendents, North Pike school in Pike County (Miss.) announced before its football game last Friday that prayer was prohibited. Before receiving FFRF's memo Christian prayers were routinely broadcast over the intercom.

FFRF intends to bring to light violations of school policy and the law to ensure all students and staff are represented justly.

“If citizens are subjected to state-sponsored religious exercises, the state disavows its own duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people,” the Supreme Court ruled in Lee v. Weisman, which barred graduation prayer.

FFRF pointed out to superintendents that litigation against prayer and bible-reading in the public schools was typically brought by religious parents, including the Supreme Court’s most recent decision against devotions in schools, Santa Fe v. Doe, stopping sports prayer. "If you are going to have devotions, whose devotions? Which denomination, which church, which beliefs will be 'blessed' by a school district?" asked Gaylor and Barker.

In one early case against religious devotion in the schools brought by Roman Catholic parents, a state supreme court justice wisely noted:

“There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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