First Amendment Establishment Clause Still Controversial in US Schools

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The parents of two children who attend Swainsboro Primary School in Emanuel County, Georgia have brought a lawsuit against the district because daily prayers are held in the classrooms – and for embarrassing their children after their parents complained.

The lawsuit stats that one child was proselytized and the other felt so uncomfortable at school that parents began home schooling the child. Steve Visser of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes that the family has remained anonymous, but are members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an advocacy group involved in church-state issues. The children are being called Jesse and Jamie, while the parents are Jane and John Doe.

“Jesse was pressured all semester long to pray,” the foundation said in a statement. “(His first-grade teacher) even held Jesse back from recess to explain her personal Christian beliefs at length, and said that Jesse’s mother was a bad person for not believing in God. At the end of the semester, Jesse began to join in the classroom prayers because of … continued coercion.”

When the Does complained to the principal, matters worsened. The Doe children were told to sit in the hall during prayer, according to the lawsuit, and Jamie’s teacher told his kindergarten class that Jamie was not allowed to pray to God, and sent Jamie into the hallway.

One fellow student thought Jamie was being punished for not praying, and another classmate teased Jamie about being punished and sent to the hallway. Jesse added that his first-grade teacher used her “mean voice” when she told him to go to the hall. He shared that his teacher said to the class “Jesse cannot recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the rest of the class, since it contains the words ‘under God’ “, which, says the lawsuit, further stigmatized and singled out the first-grader.

Don Barker, co-president of the FFRF, said it should not be necessary to sue over such a blatant violation of Supreme Court decisions that have specifically barred devotions from the US public schools, writes Scott Kaufman of RawStory.

“”No child in our secular school system or their parents,” he added, “should be subjected to prayer, or stigmatized when their parents speak up to defend the Establishment Clause. But unfortunately, it appears a lawsuit will be the only way to protect the freedom of conscience of these young children.”

In South Carolina, the American Humanist Association is asking for a summary judgment in its complaint against the Greenville County School District, which challenges the district’s inclusion of prayer in its public elementary school graduation ceremonies along with holding the ceremony in a Christian Chapel. David Dykes, writing for the Greenville News, reports that Monica Miller, an attorney for the association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said:

“Numerous cases make clear that public schools, particularly elementary schools, must strictly maintain the separation of church and state and must not include prayer in school-sponsored events such as graduation ceremonies.”

The school has been including prayers in its graduation ceremonies since 1951 and recently began holding the ceremonies in a Christian Chapel at a Christian university. A judgement in favor of the lawsuit should be forthcoming.

The district’s response is that students who are chosen to speak based on neutral criteria like academic performance have the First Amendment Right to speak from either a religious or secular point of view.

The lawsuit has been active since September, 2013. A three-judge panel of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond vacated Senior US District Judge G. Ross Anderson, Jr.’s ruling denying the humanist association’s request for a preliminary injunction. The appeals court stated in its ruling that the district court provided no legal analysis for its decision. The appellate court ordered that a different judge should consider the case.

An Alabama state representative is filing legislation that would require schools to allow student religious expression. Rep. Mack Butler (R-Rainbow City) sponsored what was the first House bill for the 2015 Regular Session of the Legislature, which will begin in March, according to Brian Lyman, reporting for the Montgomery Advertiser. The bill would allow student to “…pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression.”

“Students can do that; teachers can not,” said Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama. “Teachers can be a monitor or be in the room and keep order, but they can not participate in religious clubs.”

Watson added that this type of bill is filed almost every year and is redundant. A memorandum sent to state superintendents in 2000 covered much of the territory in Butler’s bill, and the chances for the bill making it to the House floor for a vote are poor.