The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the Emanuel County School System in Swainsboro, Georgia. If the allegations in the press release they sent out are even remotely true, this is one of the most blatant and egregious violations of the First Amendment I’ve ever seen.
Defendants include Superintendent Kevin Judy, Swainsboro Primary School Principal Valorie Watkins, Swainsboro Primary School teacher Kaytrene Bright and Swainsboro primary school teacher Cel Thompson. Anonymous co-plaintiffs are Jane and John Doe, and their young children, Jesse and Jamie Doe.
“Encouraging the Doe children to pray, or isolating and punishing the Doe children for electing not to pray, violates the deeply and sincerely held moral convictions of the Doe children and therefore their First Amendment rights,” reads FFRF’s legal complaint.
Before lunch, Jamie’s teacher, Cel Thompson, asked students to bow heads, fold hands and pray, leading the class in a call and response prayer: “God our Father, we give thanks, for our many blessings. Amen.”
In Jesse’s first-grade class, Kaytrene Bright led students in this daily prayer: “God is great. Let us thank you for our food. Thank you for our daily prayer. Thank you. Amen.”
When the parents first learned of the prayer practice in August 2014, they immediately contacted Principal Valorie Watkins to object. The teachers responded by telling the Doe children to leave their classrooms and sit in the hallway while the rest of their classes prayed. According to Jesse, the teacher “used her mean voice” when instructing Jesse to wait in the hallway.
After being told to go to the hallway during prayers, Jamie was teased by a fellow student, who thought Jamie was being punished for not praying. After this incident, Jamie began to regularly complain about feeling uncomfortable in class, and Jamie’s parents eventually had to pull their child out of school.
Jesse was pressured all semester long to pray. Bright even held Jesse back from recess to explain her personal Christian beliefs at length, and said that Jesse’s mother was a bad person for not believing in God. At the end of the semester, Jesse began to join in the classroom prayers because of Bright’s and other employees’ continued coercion.
This goes well beyond mere ignorance of the law. If these allegations are true, there needs to be a lot more than an injunction from a court and an agreement to change the practice. People need to be fired over this, both the teachers and the administrators who made the situation worse rather than complying with the law.