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Arkansas district asked to stop praying with students, distributing Bibles

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter to a southwestern Arkansas school district asking officials there to “quit imposing Christianity on elementary children.”

The group sent the letter after two now-deleted social media posts from the Prescott School District went viral on social media in mid-May. One post showed students appearing to read Gideon Bibles that had apparently been distributed during school hours, while the other showed staff members appearing to pray with pre-Kindergarten students.

The post about the Bibles had the caption, “This is a sight that should make anyone happy! It sure does us! Our 5th and 6th grade students received New Testament Bibles today and were reading them at lunch and even on the bus this afternoon. God is so good! #impactthepack”.

(Source: FFRF)

The prayer post read, “Our sweet little PreK students praying before they eat lunch! At Prescott, we pray. #impactthepack”.

(Source: FFRF)

In its letter , the Freedom From Religion Foundation refers to the actions depicted as Constitutional violations. The letter reads in part:

The First Amendment of the Constitution dictates that public schools may not show favoritism towards or coerce belief or participation in religion … When a public elementary school’s faculty and staff lead students in prayer, encourage students to pray, and distribute bibles to students, the District displays blatant favoritism towards Christianity and coerces elementary school students to participate in a religious exercise and accept religious literature.

The foundation’s letter – signed by the FFR’ legal fellow, Samantha Lawrence — continues, laying out why the foundation believes the district’s actions are unconstitutional:

It is unconstitutional for public school districts to allow the distribution of bibles in classrooms during the school day. Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited. This means that public school faculty and staff cannot hand out bibles or otherwise facilitate the distribution of bibles. In one of the leading federal court decisions on this topic, Berger v. Rensselaer Central Sch. Corp. … the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that classroom distribution of Gideon bibles to fifth-graders violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In permitting distribution of bibles, “schools affront not only non-religious people but all those whose faiths, or lack of faith, does not encompass the [bible].” The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which holds jurisdiction over Arkansas, likewise upheld an injunction prohibiting a bible distribution on public school property … Additionally, distributing religious literature creates an unwelcoming and divisive environment in schools. Bible distributions needlessly alienate and exclude those students who are a part of the 49 percent of Generation Z who are religiously unaffiliated.

Lawrence then addresses the issue of student and faculty prayer:

Public school faculty and staff may not lead their students in prayer, encourage or coerce students to pray, or participate in student-initiated prayer. The Supreme Court has continually struck down teacher or school-led prayer in public schools. See, e.g., Engel (declaring school-sponsored prayers in public schools unconstitutional); Schempp (declaring unconstitutional devotional Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools); Wallace (overturning law requiring daily “period of silence not to exceed one minute . . . for meditation or daily prayer”). The elementary school environment is inherently coercive. Elementary school students are quite literally a captive audience. Further, elementary school students are young, impressionable, and eager to please their teachers and fit in with their peers. When fifth and sixth grade students see their peers taking and reading bibles, it is only logical that they will take one and read it to fit in. When faculty and staff lead pre-kindergarten students in prayer or encourage them to pray, students that young will no doubt take that as a command that they must obey.

Certainly, “a school can direct a teacher to ‘refrain from expressions of religious viewpoints in the classroom and like settings.’” … The Supreme Court has recognized that “[f]amilies entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.”… Here, Prescott Elementary School, and thus the District, has repeatedly violated the trust that parents place in their public schools and usurped the authority of parents to direct the religious or nonreligious upbringing of their children.

The letter notes that, while the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District allowed a football coach to have a “silent, private post-game prayer”, that ruling was in reference to a coach’s solo prayer. Quoting from the SCOTUS ruling, the letter notes that in that case, the coach’s prayers “were not publicly broadcast or recited to a captive audience. Students were not required or expected to participate.”

The letter concludes:

Additionally, the Court concluded the coach’s quiet private prayer was private speech. (the coach’s prayer was not given while he was performing official duties such as instructing players, discussing strategy, or encouraging better performance). In stark contrast, faculty and staff at Prescott Elementary School have actively led pre-kindergarten students in prayers. In order to protect the First Amendment rights of all Prescott Elementary School students and respect the constitutional rights of parents, the District must ensure that Prescott Elementary’s faculty and staff cease leading students in prayer, encouraging students to pray, and distributing religious literature to students. Please inform us in writing of the steps the District is taking to address these serious constitutional violations and ensure that they do not recur.

In its communication with the school district, the FFR Foundation also notes that comments critical of the district may have been deleted from social media posts, and that the commenting feature has been turned off on its pages after commenters said the district’s actions were unconstitutional.

Reporting about the incident, the nonprofit newsroom the Arkansas Advocate said that the Prescott School District’s superintendent, Robert Poole, did not respond to requests for comment. The Advocate continues:

One of the legal rulings Lawrence referenced was Epperson v. Arkansas. The 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared it unconstitutional for the state Legislature to pass a law forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Additionally, in 2009, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that blocked a Missouri school district from distributing Bibles to students. The same court holds jurisdiction over Arkansas.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has repeatedly found overlaps of church and state in Arkansas, according to its website. The foundation was one of several plaintiffs to sue the state for its monument to the Ten Commandments on Capitol grounds, authorized by a 2015 law.

This year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law to create a “monument to the unborn” on Capitol grounds, “commemorating unborn children aborted during the era of Roe v. Wade,” meaning from 1973 to 2022. The Freedom From Religion Foundation denounced this plan as a “monument to ignorance.”

The foundation has also criticized “parents’ bill of rights” legislation that was introduced in multiple states, including Arkansas, this year.

“While appearing to be an innocuous way to strengthen parent involvement in schools, they are a clear attempt to dismantle trust in the public education system and to allow a minority of Christian nationalist extremists to impose their views on other parents and children,” the foundation wrote in April.


Header image: (Yan Krukau/Pexels)

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