Stick to the Constitution, FFRF advises Arkansas schools

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The Pea Ridge School District is beset with constitutional violations, contends the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The district broadcasts prayer over the loudspeaker before every home football game, a local resident has reported to FFRF. Reportedly, the prayer is usually recited by a student.

It is illegal for a public school to sponsor religious messages at school athletic events, FFRF informs the school district.

“The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Pea Ridge Schools Superintendent Rick Neal. “Moreover, the Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events, Even if student-led, the court said prayers at a ‘regularly scheduled school-sponsored function conducted on school property’ would lead an objective observer to perceive it as state endorsement of religion.”

That’s not the half of it. The Pea Ridge School Board leads prayer before every meeting, according to FFRF’s local complainant, a fact confirmed by school board meeting minutes.

It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings, FFRF reminds the school district. This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“A public school board is an essential part of the public school system,” Line writes to Neal. “In the most recent case striking down a school board’s prayer practice, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed 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.’”

This ruling was made last year in FFRF v. Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, which the Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to have litigated.

It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens, including students and their families, 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 asserts. Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. The school board, however, ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the one-fourth of Americans who are nonreligious, including 38 percent of Americans born after 1987.

All public school occasions must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students, FFRF concludes.

“Football games and school board meetings are two of the most well-attended public school events,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Lacing them with a dose of religion shows contempt for those students and families that don’t share such beliefs.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including in Arkansas. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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