On May 27, the top ten students in every grade at Sarah Scott Middle School (in Indiana) gathered for an awards banquet. One of the teachers at the school, Jeffrey Burress, began the celebration by doing what he did the previous year: He said a prayer. All the award recipients along with the student council members who were there were expected to bow their heads.
Thankfully, a parent of one of those students alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the problem. The FFRF’s Sam Grover send district Superintendent Daniel Tanoos (below) a letter reminding them of the law and demanding they put a stop to the constitutional violations:
The District should make certain that teachers in its schools are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by encouraging them to engage in prayer. Schoolchildren already feel significant pressure to conform from their peers. They must not be subjected to similar pressure from their teachers, especially on religious questions. Considering the young age of the students, concern over religious coercion and proselytization should be especially high in middle schools.
The District must make certain that future school-sponsored events do not contain prayer and that all District staff are reminded of their constitutional duty to remain neutral toward religion while acting in their official capacities. We request an immediate investigation and response in writing informing us of the steps you are taking to end this serious constitutional violation.
You would think the Vigo County School Corporation would’ve put up a fight — many districts do — but even their attorney was thinking, “Yeah, you caught us. We have no defense here.”
The School Corporation has investigated the matter and does acknowledge that on May 27, 2014 there was an end of year banquet in which a teacher led a prayer with students present.
I’m writing to inform you that the School Corporation has informed each building Principal that teacher-led prayer with students present will cease, as it is prohibited by the Constitution and should not be allowed.
Wow… That was relatively easy. However, Tanoos still doesn’t seem to understand what all the fuss was about:
“Now we have to live within the law, which I’ve understood but never thought someone would complain about, a teacher leading a prayer,” Tanoos says.
That Tanoos thinks no one would ever complain about a teacher-led prayer is a sign of why it’s a problem. I know it’s hard for him to understand — he’s only the highest ranking person in the district — but not all students believe in his God. All he has to do is imagine a teacher telling captive students “God isn’t real!” to figure out why religion should be left out of public school celebrations altogether.
But the bigger story may be this: The prayer happened last year and no one said anything. This year, a parent reached out to the FFRF, and the problem got fixed. If that parent stayed silent, the prayers would’ve likely continued indefinitely until the argument became, “Well, we can’t stop it now! It’s tradition!”
That’s why it’s so important for parents and students to speak up when they recognize these religious injustices. Nothing will change without them.