A district court challenge in Puerto Rico filed by two atheist organizations has succeeded in convincing educators to drop mandatory prayer from at least one school’s daily agenda — and the change could ripple outward to impact other Puerto Rico schools as well.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico teamed up to represent the Doe family, whose children attend Luis M. Santiago (LMS) School in the municipality of Toa Baja, a suburb of San Juan.
The family matriarch, identified only as Doe 1 in court documents, did not want her minor children — both under fourteen years of age — taught religious precepts alongside grammar and arithmetic:
As a Secular Humanist, Doe 1 does not engage in prayer or believe in the power of prayer. She does not let her children participate in religious activity because she does not want to force any religious ideology on them, allowing them to choose for themselves once they are old enough to decide. Thus, exposing her children to prayer or coercing her children to engage in prayer violates her sincerely held beliefs.
The school’s prayer events were no small portion of the school day; they frequently lasted as many as 50 minutes, though their scheduling tended to vary. The prayers were invariably Christian; there was no attempt to acknowledge or affirm other spiritual traditions.
At first, Doe responded by dropping her children off at school an hour late on days when prayers were scheduled. But she came into conflict with one teacher, Cindy Prieto, who informed Doe that her children would be marked as tardy or truant if she kept them out of morning prayers, which would in turn impact their grades. The unpredictable length of the prayer sessions also caused Doe’s children to miss classroom time and even exams when prayers were unexpectedly short.
What’s more, the children were singled out in the classroom for their lack of religion. One teacher refused to provide a non-Christian alternative to Nativity-themed coloring pages, leaving the child to sit idle and excluded during classroom time. Another teacher spoke to students about the family’s lack of religion, which led to incidents of bullying from classmates.
Doe reached out to the Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico, of which she is a member, to explore what options she had to protect her family. Ultimately, she opted to bring suit against Luz Ramos, the principal of LMS School, and Eligio Hernandez Perez, the Secretary of the Department of Education.
In February, the court determined that the case was best solved via mediation, which took place in the spring. Given the school closures that took place over the past few months, results of the case were not released until August, when court-appointed mediator Alfredo Castellanos Bayouth issued a memorandum in advance of schools’ reopening for the new school year.
As a result of the mediation, FFRF reports, there will be some changes in effect at LMS School this September:
The defendants said they would immediately and permanently prohibit school-led prayers at Luis M. Santiago School and would undertake all reasonable efforts to ensure an academic school environment free from harassment of the students and their parents. They also consented to remove negative academic marks related to the plaintiff students’ non-participation in the prayer sessions. And importantly, they indicated they would circulate a memorandum on the policy of non-discrimination and non-sectarian education in public schools to Department of Education employees and conduct a training for all employees of the school regarding their constitutional obligations.
The training will address some of the issues the Doe children faced even beyond the school-led prayer and proselytizing: publicly identifying a child’s religion, for instance, or incorporating religious content into classroom activities (as with the nativity coloring sheets).
It will also serve to remind teachers at LMS — and across Puerto Rico — that children, too, have the constitutional right to freedom of religion, which includes the right to refuse participation without penalty.
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