FFRF stops public prayers all over country

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

From Virginia to Louisiana to Arizona and Utah and numerous points in between, FFRF has ended public prayers by school or city officials. Here’s a rundown of the most recent prayer cases FFRF has been successful in stopping.

Arizona

Yuma Union High School District has taken exemplary action to address a state/church violation in its school.

A Kofa High School student contacted FFRF to report that the 2019 Kofa High School graduation ceremony included an invocation. This invocation was scheduled in advance by the school and listed in the graduation program.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Gina Thompson, asking that the district take action to ensure that religious rituals are not part of graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events. Thompson sent a very positive letter of response to FFRF outlining the district’s commitment to remedying this violation.

“First, I will meet with individual employees who may have been responsible for the inclusion of an invocation in the Kofa High School graduation ceremony to educate them about the importance of separating church and state and preventing school sponsored prayer in school activities,” Thompson wrote. “Second, I will be distributing a statement of policy to all district employees, which will refer in part to the prohibition of the use of district resources for the promotion of religion in school activities. Third, we plan to add a component to our training for new employees reminding them of the importance of separating religious matters from state public school functions.”

Arkansas

The Springdale School District has committed to working with local partners to ensure that community events are not promoting religion.

A district staff member informed FFRF that each year the district requires staff members to attend a back-to-school event sponsored by local businesses and held on school property. This event apparently begins annually with an invocation given in the name of Jesus and including proclamations exclusive to Christianity.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jim Rollins, asking the district to ensure that future events do not unconstitutionally endorse religion. Rollins said in a letter of response that the district has discussed FFRF’s concerns with Chamber of Commerce staff and “will continue to work with them to ensure that Chamber of Commerce-sponsored district staff meetings are both inclusive and constitutional.”

Illinois

Washington Park School District has taken steps to make sure that school-sponsored events no longer start with prayer.

A local resident alerted FFRF that multiple recent Washington Park District-sponsored events had begun with prayer. According to the complainant, the district promotes, schedules and staffs local monthly lunch events for seniors at Five Points, a facility operated jointly by several local government agencies, including the Washington Park District. FFRF was informed that the Park District partners with local senior living facilities and other similar organizations to provide food for the events. At least some of the organizations that the district have partnered with to provide food for these events have taken advantage of this partnership to pray over attendees. On at least one occasion an attendee who protested was told they would either sit down and be quiet during the prayer or leave the event.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote Washington Park District Executive Director Brian Tibbs, asking that the district refrain from partnering with organizations that will use their status as co-hosts of a government-sponsored event to require attendees to sit through their prayers.

Tibbs informed FFRF via email that the district has “taken the necessary steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Louisiana

Lafayette School District administrators have been reminded of district legal policies governing religion in schools after a student was scheduled to lead an invocation.

A district member reported to FFRF that Broussard Middle School scheduled a student to lead an invocation at its end-of-the-year ceremony. This student was apparently listed as the “master of ceremonies” on the event program and delivered a prayer that was Christian in nature, directed to “God” and ending with “Amen.”

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to the Interim Superintendent Irma Trosclair, urging the district to discontinue scheduling religious invocations at any future school-sponsored events.

The district’s Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer W. Gardner sent a letter of response to FFRF with assurances that the district has taken action to address the complaints.

Texas

Prayers before the annual homecoming parade have been stopped in the Conroe School District.

A Conroe community member reported that last year’s homecoming parade began with a prayer being read over the loudspeaker in Moorhead Stadium. This prayer was reportedly overtly Christian as it involved multiple invocations of the Lord. Some students were apparently required to attend this event.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s general counsel and reminded the district that prayer at school-sponsored events is against the law. In a letter of response, the school’s attorney assured FFRF that it will forgo prayer at future parades, which historically had been held off campus by the parent booster club.

“Next year there will be no prayer at the Homecoming Parade, regardless of whether it occurs on or off school property,” the letter says. “If the booster club wants to solemnize the event, they can begin the event with a moment of silence.”

. . .

The San Antonio International Airport has removed scheduled prayer from its volunteer event schedules.

A member of the airport’s Ambassador Program reported to FFRF that Christian prayer had continually preceded volunteer appreciation luncheons at the airport. The airport apparently regularly scheduled an invocation before these luncheons began. On at least one occasion, this was reportedly led by a Catholic priest who gave a prayer and requested a response from attendees.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to the program’s coordinator, pointing out that these prayers unfairly alienated non-Christian and nonreligious volunteers and urged the program to continue without such prayers in the future.

Chief Customer Experience Officer Karen W. Ellis responded to FFRF’s complaint with assurances that scheduled prayer had been canceled and would not occur in the future.

Utah

Prayers at public works employee meetings in the city of Provo have been stopped.

A city employee alerted FFRF that government meetings routinely featured a prayer before meals, always on city property and always at the request of management, who are all Mormons.

FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to Provo City Attorney Robert West, urging the city to discontinue the practice of impermissibly subjecting employees to prayer at government meetings. West informed FFRF that these prayers will stop.

“Having had your complainant’s concerns called to his attention, the director does not want your complainant to feel unwelcome at department lunches and has decided not to make prayer at these lunches a routine practice,” West wrote in a letter of response.

Virginia

A high school in the Wythe County Public School District in Max Meadows has removed a large prayer display from its lunchroom.

A concerned community member reported that Fort Chiswell High School was displaying a religious prayer on a large placard in its cafeteria that read: “Our Father: We thank thee for this food. Bless it to the nourishment of our bodies and our lives to thy service. Amen.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Wythe County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Jeffries, urging him to remove this sign. The school’s general counsel informed FFRF the placard had been removed in response to the complaint.

West Virginia

Mineral County Schools in Ridgeley has committed to addressing complaints of coach-led prayer in the district.

A concerned district parent contacted FFRF to report that Frankfort High School Football coaches prayed with their players on the field after a game. FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Troy Ravenscroft reminding him that this conduct is unconstitutional and that the district has an obligation to remain neutral on religion.

Ravenscroft sent a letter of response, thanking FFRF for informing him of this violation and alerting FFRF that the district views this “as an opportunity to work with staff and athletic coaches on observing and upholding the First Amendment, its boundaries and its requirements.”

. . .

Prayer before government-sponsored training sessions has been stopped in Martinsburg.

A local community member reported that the poll worker training class led by Berkeley County Council began with the Lord’s Prayer. FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson alerted Doug Copenhaver, the council’s president, of this unconstitutional government-endorsed prayer.

Copenhaver informed FFRF in a letter of response that the council was unaware this meeting began with prayer, but has since dealt with the issue.