A Florida high school was one of many to recently receive a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation regarding school prayer laws. Specifically, the FFRF’s staff attorneys explained that prayers led by a school official have been determined to violate the first amendment by expressing a government preference for one religion over others or non-religion.
The schools in question all came to the attention of the FFRF because of coaches or team chaplains who lead the football teams in prayer. While praying in school is legal, an official leading that prayer is problematic.
An FFRF press release Thursday shared that one of the school districts they contacted in Florida has responded by telling schools in that district they may not have chaplains lead prayers at events, nor may school officials join in student-led prayer.
In response, students at one school in the district decided to take matters into their own hands. If their coach couldn’t join their prayer, they would invite the community to do so. They spread the word, inviting community members to join the football team on the field after the game for a massive group prayer, and to shout “Amen!” instead of cheering during the game.
According to WKMG, coaches decided that, to avoid legal issues, they would stand yards away from where the protest prayer took place. Again, there is nothing to prohibit student-led prayer as long as school officials are not a part of it.
The community is also calling for a showing at the next school board meeting on September 2 in order to demand that the school district reverse the policy and allow chaplains and coaches to lead the prayer, despite that courts have ruled numerous times against prayer led by school officials.
Attendees report that the event was extremely successful, with hundreds on the field praying with students and athletes, and shouting “Amen!”
While the FFRF did not respond to the event, Hemant Mehta, “The Friendly Atheist,” spoke of the event on his blog, stating that while he can’t speak for the organization himself, he believes he can adequately express the position of most secularists on the matter:
“They don’t care if students pray before, during, and after every single game. They don’t care if parents join in. Not only do they not care, they will support those students’ right to pray. As long as a coach isn’t in that huddle, and a chaplain isn’t leading the charge, and the school has nothing to do with the Facebook organizing, they don’t care. None of that is a problem.”
The school year is barely beginning, but the debates about religious expression are already heating up: last week, a student in Tennessee was involved in a controversy over saying “bless you” in class (The specifics of the incident are hotly debated, with the school denying she was suspended or that it was for religious speech).
However, it all comes down to interpretation of the constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. The current accepted reading of the law by courts is that prayer is absolutely legal and to forbid it would infringe upon student rights. However, allowing school officials to lead violates the establishment clause. It’s this prohibition on officials leading school prayer that many seek to change.
[Photo Credit: Cover the Field Facebook Event]