In the district I taught in, we used to hold a massive beginning-of-the-year event for faculty members at a nearby Christian church. It was the only local space that could accommodate that many people. But it wasn’t a problem because, other than the building itself, you wouldn’t have known you were in a church. The speakers focused on the upcoming school year and there were no prayers or anything of the sort.
The Jackson Public School District in Mississippi held a similar event a couple of weeks ago at the Mississippi Coliseum… but infused Christianity throughout the mandatory, three-hour-long, district-sponsored event.
It must have been a surprise for any faculty member who looked at the event description on the district’s website:
According to the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, this is what happened:
Reverend Roy Maine was invited by the School District to deliver the opening prayer.
The Reverend began his sermon by asking the entire faculty to “shut your eyes please” and pray. Following that was a series of “call and responses” where he would ask the teachers, “please say amen to that,” to which they would respond, “amen!” The Reverend said that the reason they were all there was to “to see just what God’s going to do this [school] year.”
The religious proselytization did not end with the Reverend’s sermon. Nearly every speaker at this three-hour event engaged in some form of religious preaching, recitation of Bible verses, and invocation to “Lord” and “God.” The event was best described by our client as “one long church service.”
Apparently, Reverend Maine delivered a prayer at last year’s convocation as well, proving that this wasn’t just an isolated incident.
The AHA isn’t filing a lawsuit. Yet. They’re just asking Superintedent Dr. Cedrick Gray to promise it won’t happen again and explain how the district will take steps to enforce that in the future.
“Given the numerous cases holding that prayers and sermons at public school-sponsored events violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, it’s shocking that the district would include such blatantly religious practices at a compulsory convocation,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
“When public schools get unnecessarily involved in supporting sectarian prayer at educator events, they disregard the rights of teachers of other religions and those of no religion,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.
Even in Mississippi, it’s amazing how many public school officials think it’s effective or legal to join together in Christian prayer to kick off the new year. It’s also not working. Education Week ranked the state dead last (51st) when it came to K-12 Student Achievement. Maybe if district officials spent more time talking about how to help students and less time asking God to intervene in their affairs, they might get somewhere.