According to a Reuters report, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed the lawsuit against Pine Creek High School near Colorado Springs for their ban on religious speech during recess and other “open periods.”
As Breitbart News reported previously, ADF also alerted the school board of Gilbert Public Schools in Arizona to pages of a biology textbook that discuss abortion, pointing out that the text did not meet a new state law requiring that instructional materials give preference to childbirth and adoption over abortion. Subsequently, the school board voted to remove the pages from the textbook that focus on abortion.
Reuters notes that Academy District #20, which includes Pine Creek High School, said that “non-curricular groups, which include religious groups, may only meet before classes begin and after they end.”
ADF filed the lawsuit on behalf of Chase Windebank, a senior at Pine Creek High who said he was told that he and a group of friends are no longer permitted to meet to pray or discuss issues related to religion during their “seminar” periods at school on Mondays and Fridays. The students had been meeting for prayer, discussions, and Christian song during these open periods for the past three years.
The Pine Creek High School Student Handbook is quoted in the lawsuit as describing “seminar” period as “an opportunity to develop a sense of community; to build lines of communication; to provide community and school services; and to have focused academic time.”
Assistant Principal James Lucas reportedly told Windebank on September 29 that he and the other students could continue their meetings, but must stop any religious speech during them, because of the “separation of church and state.”
In a statement on the ADF website, senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco said, “Public schools should encourage the free exchange of ideas. Instead, this school implemented an ill-conceived ban that singles out religious speech for censorship during free time.”
“Far from being unconstitutional, religious speech is expressly protected by the First Amendment, and public schools have no business stopping students from praying together during their free time,” added ADF legal counsel Matt Sharp.
According to ADF, the school district’s legal counsel support the school’s decision even though ADF attorneys explained to the district in a letter that the policy of banning students from religious speech during free periods violates the First Amendment.
An excerpt from ADF’s letter to the school district reads as follows:
We write to inform you that the school’s bar on Chase’s informal prayer group violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which requires schools to permit student speech so long as it is not materially and substantially disruptive. Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 511 (1969). Here, Chase’s prayer meetings have a three year track record of no disruptions whatsoever. The School thus is violating Chase’s and his classmate’s rights under Tinker by banning the prayer meetings.
Patricia Richardson, the school district’s director for legal relations, responded with a letter that cited the Equal Access Act as the basis for its decision:
In accordance with the Equal Access Act, non-curriculum related groups, such as Chase’s prayer group, may meet at Pine Creek High School during non-instructional time. Our administrative policy JJA defines “noninstructional time.” “For purposes of this policy, ‘noninstructional time’ means time set aside by each school before actual classroom instruction begins or after actual classroom instruction ends, and may include specific activity periods set aside for this purpose.” Seminar at Pine Creek is not homeroom time. It is class time and it is considered instructional time. No non-curricular clubs are permitted to meet during that time period at Pine Creek High School. Therefore, Mr. Windebank may resume his prayer meetings at Pine Creek High School, but he must do so during non-instructional time, that is before 7:45 a.m. when classes begin, and after 2:45 p.m., when classes end for the day.
All students of the school are reportedly permitted to leave class 15 minutes after the start of the “seminar” homeroom period on Mondays and Wednesdays. Those students who have earned a grade higher than “D” may do the same on Fridays as well.
During the free time, students are permitted to engage in a virtually unlimited variety of activities, including gathering with other students inside or outside; reading; sending text messages to their friends; playing games on their phone; visiting the bathrooms; getting a snack; visiting teachers; and conducting official meetings of school clubs.
Since the school district stood by their decision to prohibit the prayer meetings during the open periods, ADF filed the lawsuit, Windebank v. Academy School District #20, in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
In an interview with Breitbart News, Tedesco said it’s a common misconception that prayer is illegal in public schools all the time.
“All too often, we see students’ activities related to religion or prayer in schools shut down,” he said. “Separation of church and state is frequently cited, though it’s not a phrase in the Constitution. It’s an old, tired, overused and inaccurate expression of what the First Amendment protects.”
“This is private students’ speech, so it is protected under the First Amendment,” Tedesco asserted. “The school is not endorsing the prayer in any way; in fact, they’re trying to shut it down.”
Observing that the school’s student handbook states the purpose of “seminar” time is to build community in the school, Tedesco said the school cannot say religious speech is incompatible with that.
“Chase and his friends have been meeting for prayer for three years,” he added. “He tried to resolve this informally before he contacted us. There were various points at which this situation could have been resolved prior to our lawsuit.”
“These are important cases,” Tedesco reflected. “All too often it is Christians who are losing out when other groups are not obstructed.”