Missouri school district settles prayer complaint

06/13/2014 12:49 PM

06/13/2014 12:49 PM

A mid-Missouri high school has been ordered to restrict some religious activities at schools and to rewrite its handbook as part of a settlement of a complaint filed by a secular organization.

The decree settles a federal court complaint filed in November against the Fayette school district alleging the school violated the Constitution by announcing weekly prayer meetings over the intercom and allowing a Christian group to meet before school, when other clubs could not. It also alleged that the club’s sponsor, teacher Gwen Pope, prayed with the students and displayed personal religious materials in the classroom, The Columbia Daily Tribune reported.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Humanist Association, a student, the student’s mother and a former Fayette student.

The consent decree, issued last month by U.S. District Judge Nannette Laughrey, prohibits faculty sponsors from actively participating in religious activities during student meetings and from placing religion-themed items were students will see them. The district also is required to change its teacher handbook entries on student organizations to specify the proper content of meeting announcements and when student clubs can meet.

“The Fayette R-III School District shall be permanently enjoined from promoting prayer or religious activity as prohibited by the First Amendment,” according to the decree.

Employees will be allowed to wear religious clothing, jewelry, or other religious items.

The complaint also named former high school principal Darren Rapert, who made the announcements about the meetings of the Christian student group. Rapert and Pope no longer work for the district.

The decree says the school district and the two employees deny all the allegations other than one related to the meeting announcements. The handbook will be modified to make it “abundantly clear” that the school does not endorse religion, Superintendent Tamara Kimball said in a statement. She added it would cost the district more than $41,000 to continue to fight the complaint.

“After months of investigation and interviews the district determined that virtually every allegation made by the plaintiffs was false, misleading or taken out of context,” Kimball said. “As a result, the district agreed that the one allegation we did confirm as accurate, the content of the morning announcement, would be a simple concession to make so we could put this lawsuit behind us and continue our mission of educating students.”

David Niose, legal director for the American Humanist Association, said the consent decree addresses all the plaintiffs’ complaints.

“Teaching is not a stage on which to proselytize to students,” Niose said. “The job is to teach and it’s a secular job.”

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