American Humanist Association files lawsuit over prayer sessions at Missouri school

11/21/2013 12:33 PM

11/21/2013 12:35 PM

A lawsuit filed by a secular organization seeks to prevent teacher-sponsored school prayer sessions at a mid-Missouri high school.

In a complaint filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association claims that prayer sessions held at Fayette High School violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which says the government may not establish an official religion.

A phone message left for Fayette R-III School District superintendent Tamara Kimball wasn't immediately returned.

The lawsuit says a math teacher led the weekly Christian devotional prayer sessions for several years in her classrooms after buses arrived in the morning and before classes began. The suit said she would urge students to pray for sick or injured students and joined the students in saying "amen." The school's former principal made an announcement over the public address system to remind students about the meetings.

The teacher violated a school district policy that states school employees "are to be present solely in a nonparticipatory capacity at any student-initiated religious activity held at school and will strictly observe a policy of official neutrality regarding religious activity," the lawsuit says.

The suit also said the teacher told students during her math class that God would punish them if they are not good and prominently displayed the book "God's Game Plan" in her classroom.

The teacher and principal left the district at the end of the 2012-13 year, but the association believes the prayer sessions are continuing this year, said Monica Miller, an attorney for the group. She said it's unclear whether a teacher is participating in them.

Miller said that a student plaintiff is still attending the school.

"What we are challenging is that the district has established a policy of allowing teachers to pray with students," Miller said, adding that the suit seeks to keep that from happening in the future.

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