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Humanist group files lawsuit over prayer in public high school

The American Humanist Association filed a federal lawsuit against Missouri's Fayette School District on Wednesday (Nov. 20), saying Fayette High School is unconstitutionally promoting Christianity through teacher-led prayer.

The lawsuit focuses on the activities happening in the classroom of Gwen Pope, a math teacher at the school. Pope was the faculty advisor for the Christian student group at the school.

According to school district policy, employees "may not sponsor promote, or lead student-initiated groups or meetings," but they may be present to monitor the students. Those who are involved with student-led religious activities "are to be present solely in a nonparticipatory capacity" and must "observe a policy of official neutrality regarding religious activity."

Last spring, a student – who is also a member of the humanist association – reported to the association that Pope was facilitating Friday morning prayer sessions in her classroom before first period, but after the school officially opened for the day, around 7:30 am.

The AHA's Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent a letter to the school in May.

"It is the school's decision to promote and affiliate itself with Christianity that is unconstitutional," the letter said. "The school has endorsed the religious messages of the prayers by permitting a teacher to deliver them to students at school." (Read the letter here.)

The letter demanded that the school stop these prayers, with the threat of a lawsuit not only against the school district, but also against individuals involved: Pope and then-Principal Darren Rapert.

“It is unfortunate that we have reached a point where court action is necessary to address a problem that the school could have resolved voluntarily on its own,” Monica Miller, who works with the legal center, said in a news release.

The AHA has had recent success  with two other letters. The association contacted two public schools about their involvement in Operation Christmas Child, a project that's part of an evangelical relief organization. A South Carolina school cut its ties with the program on the same day it received the letter.

But that wasn't the case in Fayette.

"The school replied to our letter and said it is not changing any of its practices," said Bill Burgess, director of the AHA's legal center. "And so, we were eventually forced to take them to court."

The suit is on behalf of two students – the one who initially told the association about the prayers, and a friend of his. According to a court document, both have had "unwelcome encounters with the Classroom Prayer Sessions in the course of attending the school." (Read the full legal complaint here.)

The court documents also say Pope promoted Christianity through mentioning God while teaching, displaying a Christian book on her desk and printing fliers for the Christian student group on a color printer – something the documents say isn't done for other student groups. 

The documents also point to Rapert, who was principal at the time, announcing the prayers over the intercom.

"What's important to keep in mind is this case is about what the school is doing," Burgess said. "The courts have been fairly clear that prayer in the classroom is unconstitutional," Burgess said. "Prayer in the classroom, by which I mean the teacher leading or organizing or promoting prayer in the class room."

Student prayer is protected by the constitution. But in this case, he said, "We have the school involved, the teacher was encouraging people to pray, praying with them, and that's unconstitutional."

School District Superintendent Tamara Kimball was not available for comment.

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values, mid-Missouri's nonprofit, nonsectarian religion news website. 

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