FFRF shuts down prayer in Tenn. elementary school

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put the kibosh on a recurring constitutional violation within a Tennessee elementary school.

A concerned parent of a child in the Elizabethton City Schools district in Elizabethton, Tenn., reported that an open house held at East Side Elementary School in August featured a school-sponsored prayer reportedly directed by Principal Travis Hurley. During the event, Hurley invited three girls to speak, introducing each individually and telling the audience what they would be reading. The third girl on stage recited a Christian prayer.

This was the second state-and-church violation of this nature by the school involving Hurley, as FFRF mentioned in a letter sent to the school district director on Nov. 24.

“We write to remind you, as we did in April, that Elizabethton City Schools may not schedule prayer during school-sponsored events,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara. “To do so plainly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

FFRF also pointed out that such prayer interferes with the personal conscience of students and their parents. FFRF asked that prayer be discontinued at all future school-sponsored events and that Hurley be reminded of his First Amendment obligation to remain neutral in matters regarding religion.

In an emailed response, the Elizabethton City Schools director informed FFRF that the violation has been investigated and that Hurley has been officially directed to be more attentive to issues of religion at the school. Furthermore, all staff in the district have been reminded about their duties to uphold the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Training on this matter is planned for the district administrative meeting in December.

Elementary school children, FFRF notes, are impressionable and already under enough social pressure to conform to their peers. They must be protected from similar pressure from their school on matters of religious belief.

“Parents and young students of varied beliefs — and no belief — should not be forced to listen to a Christian prayer at what should be a secular school event,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s commendable that the district is taking serious corrective action to remedy this violation.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 30,000 members and 20 chapters across the country, including nearly 400 members in Tennessee and a regional chapter in Knoxville. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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