6 Religious Freedom Battles in Schools to Watch in 2016


For many years, Christian students and faculty have been increasingly targeted by secular school administrations for demonstrating religious beliefs, whether through prayer or other forms of expression.

Coach Joe Kennedy
Bremerton High School Coach Joe Kennedy congratulates a player at a football game in September.

The issue is all too familiar for Washingtonians, who have recently seen a state school district explicitly punish public prayer by students and faculty.  The administration at Bremerton High School has suspended and threatened to fire football Coach Joe Kennedy for briefly praying with the team before and after football games. The school ordered Kennedy to halt his public displays of faith so as to “avoid alienation of any team member.”

Related: Help us honor Coach Kennedy for his courage on May 6th!

And it doesn’t appear this targeting of religious expression in schools is going away any time soon.

While it may still be early in 2016, here are just a few of the major violations of the right to religious expression that have occurred in public schools so far this year:

  • A school district in Hollister, Missouri, told students they could no longer participate in organized prayer during school hours after a cell-phone video emerged showing a large group of students praying with a visiting Christian minister during lunch time.  The students were the ones who first approached the minister — who is not a representative or employee of the school district — and asked him to lead a prayer.  The footage prompted the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist advocacy group, to send a letter pressuring the Hollister School District to ban the practice in the future.
  • Two schools in Fairfield County, Ohio first suspended, and then reportedly banned a Church-led Bible study after receiving complaints, also from the FFRF.  Consequently, the Liberty Union-Thurston school district conducted investigations into school Bible clubs, as the FFRF claimed that invitations to local church pastors to participate in club activities is illegal, despite the fact that the groups are entirely student-led.
  • In February, a U.S. District Court judge ordered the Chino Valley Unified School District in Arizona to stop prayer at school board meetings, arguing that it is an “unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.” The board’s activities included reading Bible passages and opening board meetings with religious invocations.  The school board has since voted 3-2 to hire a lawyer to appeal the Court’s decision.
  • A public prayer at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Cooper Elementary School in Bentonville, Arkansas, has been labeled as unconstitutional.  An individual speaking at the ceremony, which celebrated the opening of a fitness trail, said a blessing over the project and allowed the spectators to participate in a prayer.  The main issue centers around whether or not the event was officially sponsored by the school; only about 20 students and administrators attended the ceremony.
  • An Illinois public school district has placed a ban on coach-led prayers, arguing that basketball coaches leading their teams in prayer is unconstitutional. The school district’s decision comes after they received pressure from the FFRF, which argued that, because coaches are employees of the school and the district, their behavior constitutes an official endorsement of religion.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to file a lawsuit against the Azusa Unified School District in California because one of its teachers displays a portrait of Jesus and Bible verses in his classroom.  The ACLU has warned the district that unless it prohibits the teacher, Michael Martinez, from displaying the religious decor, they will initiate a lawsuit, claiming that the presence of the object signify an endorsement of Christianity by the school district.

Organizations such as the FFRF and the ACLU may claim to be fighting for the separation of church and state, but their actions indicate that their real goal is the censorship of religious speech in public spaces.  They claim that religious expression in the presence of others creates victims — and that it should not be tolerated.

We must resist this policing of speech.  If we don’t, speaking openly about our personal religious convictions will be the least of our problems.  Indeed, we may not be able to speak openly at all.

Schools need protection now more than ever.  If you believe in protecting students’ rights to pray openly in schools, will you stand with FPIW to protect religious freedom in our state?

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