Mr. & Mrs. McKinney from Price, Utah, requested our assistance when their first-grade son, Patrick, told his mother at a parent/student luncheon that he could not say the blessing over their food because the Principal had a policy against prayer at school. When Mrs. McKinney inquired about the policy, the Principal confirmed that he did have such a policy because such a prayer, even during non-instructional time, would violate the separation of church and state; the Principal did say, however, that her son could pray if he did so quietly so that no one could hear this way, no one would think that the school was sponsoring it.
We sent a demand letter to the schools attorney on March 5, 2008, explaining that the policy was patently unconstitutional. We explained that a school could stand to lose its federal funding for holding discriminatory policies or policies that otherwise interfered with students rights under the First Amendments Speech and Free Exercise Clauses. We included the following quote from the U.S. Department of Education Secretarys Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, which specifically addresses student prayer during non-instructional time:
Prayer During Noninstructional Time
Students may pray when not engaged in school activities or instruction, subject to the same rules designed to prevent material disruption of the educational program that are applied to other privately initiated expressive activities. Among other things, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities. While school authorities may impose rules of order and pedagogical restrictions on student activities, they may not discriminate against student prayer or religious speech in applying such rules and restrictions.
. . .
Teachers, Administrators, and other School Employees
When acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, teachers, school administrators, and other school employees are prohibited by the Establishment Clause from encouraging or discouraging prayer, and from actively participating in such activity with students. . . . (emphasis added).
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education Guidelines (promulgated in 1998) address students rights to share their faith with others:
Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics.
On March 19, 2008, we received a response from the schools attorney, explaining that the situation has been remedied. As the letter explains, the Principal is new and did not understand the constitutional rights of students, but he has since been apprised of students constitutional rights. Patrick McKinney will now be able to pray at school during non-instructional time, whether silently or aloud (in a reasonable manner); Patrick may also share his faith with other students during non-instructional time.
Mr. & Mrs. McKinney were pleased with the outcome, and thanked us for our assistance.
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