School prayer, fish with a cross stir troubled waters for Kansas City-area district

Oak Grove public school teachers and administrators gathered for a potluck barbecue on school property this past spring. Before the meal was served, a complaint alleges, one of them stepped up and prayed over the food and for those in attendance.

Also this spring, according to the complaint, students were sent home with fliers for vacation Bible school and Christian summer camp.

Now, in the new school year, crosses continue to be displayed in the district’s front office, it said. And a “concerned Oak Grove parent” complained that the district “regularly opens mandatory faculty meetings with Christian prayer led by a local preacher or district employee.”

Tipped off by a parent, the national watchdog group Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Oak Grove Superintendent Bryan Thomsen earlier this month accusing the district of forcing prayer and religious materials on students and teachers.

“It is well-settled law that public schools may not advance or endorse religion,” Sam Grover, the group’s associate counsel, said in the letter. The group, based in Madison, Wisconsin, is a nonprofit established to protect the constitutional principal of the separation of church and state.

The letter cited a mandatory luncheon during the last week of school held at New Life Church and featuring prayer by a school board member who is also the pastor of the church. It also said that the high school principal has sent faculty-wide text messages that included “TGIM” (Thank God It’s Monday), and that he often tells students, “their faith is of the utmost importance in their lives.”

“It is inappropriate for any school employee to promote their personal religious beliefs to their co-workers,” Grover told The Star. He compared his group to the American Civil Liberties Union and said it “deals with situations like this all the time and our goal is to educate the entity and hold them to change their practices.”

Thomsen, who became superintendent of this eastern Jackson County district last year, said that before getting the letter, officials had not received any formal complaint from parents. But on more than one occasion teachers, “in passing conversations,” had questioned some of the practices that seemed to bring religion into the public school.

Thomsen said the district is investigating the claims and preparing a response.

The group’s letter listed six areas the district needs to investigate, fix or stop. Among them is the display of religious symbols, Scriptures and memorabilia, such as the crosses. The letter also demanded the district cease the teaching of creationism along with evolution in the high school and middle school.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the teaching of creationism in public schools.

“Teaching creationism or any of its offshoots, such as intelligent design, in a public school is unlawful because creationism is not based in fact; it is not science,” the letter said. “It is wildly inappropriate for the beliefs of one school of religious thought to be pushed on a captive audience of public school students.”

With the letter, the group sent copies of two fliers it said were sent home with students. One promoted Paradise Fishing Camp, run by Paradise Outfitter Ministries. The flier included the slogan “hooked for life” and showed a smiling fish looking at a cross caught in a fishing hook. The other flier was for a vacation Bible school titled “International Spy Academy: Agents for the One True God.”

“Any school policy allowing for private flier distribution should require a disclaimer,” indicating that the views and events are not being promoted or sponsored by the public school district, Grover said.

Group officials said they expect a response from the district within 30 days of receiving the letter. If they do not hear from the district they will consider other action.

While the group has been known to take such matters to court, “We are not interested in taking funds from a public school district,” Grover said. “But we are certainly not just going to go away.” The Oak Grove district, he said, “has neglected its obligations to protect the religious freedom and rights of conscience of its students and faculty.”

And the parent who complained, he said, is agreeable to filing a lawsuit against the district if changes are not made.

Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.