The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on Feb. 27 against Puerto Rico’s education secretary and a principal on behalf of a family subjected to forced prayers and bullying in a public primary school.
Since September 2019, in direct contradiction of well-established constitutional law, officials at the Luis M. Santiago School, a public school in Toa Baja, have reportedly organized, led and coerced students to participate in 50-minute prayer sessions on school property every other Monday during the school day.
FFRF is representing two of these children and their mother at the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico along with Humanistas Seculares De Puerto Rico, a leading Puerto Rican secular humanist organization that the mother belongs to.
The parties have entered into mediation to resolve the lawsuit, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, Puerto Rico schools are closed at least through March 30. Until the public schools reopen, FFRF cannot ensure that the prayer practice has stopped and that teachers at the school have been properly trained on the separation of church and state. But based on the mediation thus far, FFRF is optimistic that the lawsuit will end quickly and favorably.
As far back as 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that “the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people,” FFRF points out.
The family brings this action under pseudonyms to protect the mother and her two minor children from social ostracism, retaliation and even physical harm. Eligio Hernandez Perez is being sued in his official capacity as the secretary of the Department of Education. Luz Ramos is the principal of the Luis M. Santiago School and is being sued in both her official and individual capacities, since the complaint alleges she developed the school prayer practice at issue.
According to the filed complaint, while dropping off her children at school on Sept. 3, 2019, the mother observed staff collecting all students in the school’s front yard in order to participate in a Christian prayer. The initial part of the prayer was conveyed by a schoolteacher with use of a microphone and speakers. Upon observing this prayer, the mother immediately confronted the first available school official, who was also taking part in the prayer, to protest and to request that her children be exempted from participating.
A school official informed the mother that participation in the school-led prayer was mandatory for all students. The mother subsequently requested an urgent meeting with the school principal, but this still hasn’t taken place. The mother next discussed the school prayer incident with her child’s homeroom teacher and the school social worker, who suggested that the mother could request that her children be exempted from participation in future prayers. However, the teacher subsequently informed the mother that if her children, both excellent students, did not participate in the prayers, marks would be made in their student records indicating that they had cut class.
Since last September, staff-led prayers have taken place regularly at the school on alternating Mondays, starting at approximately 9 a.m. and lasting for approximately 50 minutes. Every prayer delivered during these school prayer sessions has been a Christian prayer. In an effort to avoid these prayers, the mother has brought her childen in late on these days. Teachers for both the students have threatened to punish the children for unexcused absences or for being tardy as a result of the mother’s efforts to avoid the school-led prayers.
Moreover, Doe 2’s teacher publicly outed the family as non-Christian to the father of one of Doe 2’s classmates, whose son told Doe 2 that, “If you believe in God, you go to Heaven, if you don’t believe in God, like your mother, you will go to Hell.”
The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction prohibiting the defendants from continuing to coerce student participation in school-led prayer, as well as a declaration that the defendants’ conduct violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the free exercise rights of the individual plaintiffs.
“We look forward to ending these egregious practices and upholding the right of this American family to a public education free from religious indoctrination and divisiveness,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF Attorneys Samuel Grover and Madeline Ziegler are representing the Freedom From Religion Foundation, while local counsel Carlos A. Cintron Garcia is representing the Humanistas Seculares De Puerto Rico.