FFRF guides Illinois school district on the right track

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has successfully counseled an Illinois school district to get on the constitutionally correct path.

A concerned El Paso Gridley CUSD #11 community member contacted the state/church watchdog to report that El Paso Gridley Jr. High School Principal Robby Tomlinson sent the following email to district parents the past September. It read in part:

Next Wednesday the 27th will be the annual “See You At The Pole” at EPG Jr. High. We will meet at the flag pole at 7:15 to get started. … While this is mainly for the students I’d like to personally invite any parent that would like to attend. Looking forward to seeing you all at the pole.
Thanks,
Robby Tomlinson

This email raised several serious concerns. See You at the Pole is a Christian-oriented prayer rally organized each year around a bible verse. The past year’s theme and verse was Hebrews 12:2: “Fix our eyes on Jesus.” At the national level, event organizers explicitly distinguish between Christian and non-Christian students, calling for non-Christian students to be “reached” through the event while Christian students “strengthen their unity.”

This religious event must be student-initiated and student-led for it to stay within constitutional bounds, FFRF informed the district. District staff, especially administrators, may not use their position as district representatives to promote the event and may not participate in their students’ religious events. Tomlinson’s email was especially troubling because he failed to disclose the religious nature of the event.

“It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students,” FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to the district. “Government employees must refrain from actively participating in religious activities while acting within their governmental role to avoid any perception of government endorsement of religion and/or excessive entanglement with religion.” 

District staff must not plan, promote or participate in any future “See You at the Pole” events, nor may they encourage students to put on such events, FFRF asked the district. Any religious events must be truly student-initiated and student-run.

The school district has acknowledged the accuracy of FFRF’s grievance and has promised a course correction.

“I have investigated the concern regarding Mr. Tomlinson’s communication to parents,” Superintendent Brian Kurz recently emailed FFRF. “We acknowledge that this communication could be perceived as promoting the See You At the Pole event. We have taken steps to ensure the school will not publicize this type of event in the future.”

FFRF is pleased at this real-world example of how its work often enlightens public school officials.

“We have to constantly point out to public school officials that they’re committing constitutional improprieties,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It is gratifying when they acknowledge that we’re spot-on.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members and 20 chapters across the country, including over 1,000 in Illinois and a chapter in Chicago. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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