UPDATE: Lawsuit Filed – ACLJ Represents Students Who Have Been Told Not To Pray at School Sporting Events in Egregious First Amendment Violation Case

Rarely are we presented with such a blatant violation of students’ First Amendment rights as has occurred here. Students at a public high school in Indiana have been instructed by their track coach not to gather and pray before track meets. In fact, the coach threatened the students, “Don’t let me see you do that again.”

While you would hope that this would be a clear mistake on the part of the coach – one immediately corrected by school officials – it was not. Even after reporting the incident to the school administration, the matter remains unresolved. The students were subsequently instructed that they must not be seen praying together as a group and that they could only engage in a moment of “reflection” alone or in small groups of two or three. The girls have been instructed not to give the appearance that they are praying at any time before, during, or after track meets.

The same day we were contacted, we sent a demand letter to the school superintendent demanding that the school take immediate action to halt the ongoing First Amendment violations. The First Amendment undisputedly protects students’ right to pray or engage in other religious speech or activities before, during, or after school and at school events, including sporting events.

As the Supreme Court explained more than 50 years ago in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969), students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Indeed, “[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” School officials may not censor student speech because of the religious content of that speech. Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 269 (1981).

As the Supreme Court elaborated in Tinker: “When [a student] is in the cafeteria, or on the playing field, or on the campus during the authorized hours, he may express his opinions . . . .” Students have the right to pray, discuss religious beliefs, and even share religious materials with their peers between classes, at break, at lunch, and before and after school. School interference with these rights is not appropriate unless such actions would cause a material and substantial disruption of school discipline.

Our clients will gather for their next track meet in less than 48 hours. Should the school fail to take immediate action to remedy the violation of these students’ rights to engage in free speech and the free exercise of religion, the ACLJ is prepared to take legal action.

UPDATE 03.07.2024: Because the school district refused to respond in a timely manner, we filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of these students, seeking a court order that their right to pray in peace be protected. We will keep you updated as this case progresses.