FAYETTE, Mo. — A national humanist organization has filed a federal lawsuit against school officials in Missouri over a high school math teacher who is accused of leading a weekly devotional and prayer meeting in her classroom.
The American Humanist Association’s (AHA) Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed the suit on Wednesday, asserting that Fayette High School and math teacher Gwen Pope are violating the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. The clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The matter stems from a complaint lodged earlier this year from a student at the school, who is a member of AHA. The student informed the group that Pope had been leading a voluntary devotional and prayer gathering each week before first period but after the school opened for the day. Former Principal Darren Rapert was also implicated of announcing the gathering over the intercom.
The Appignani Humanist Legal Center then sent a letter to the school, as well as to Superintendent Jim Judd and Board President Michelle Howell, demanding that the prayers cease.
“During these sessions, Mrs. Pope leads the students in prayer and often serves them breakfast. This practice has been ongoing for at least a year,” the letter outlined. “Non-participating students can see and hear the teacher praying with students as they walk by her classroom, which is close to the school entrance.”
It alleged that Pope told the students on several occasions that God would punish those who aren’t good.
“Teachers simply cannot participate in prayers with students at school, nor can they promote their religious beliefs in any other way to their students,” the organization asserted. “It is the school’s decision to promote and affiliate itself with Christianity that is unconstitutional. The school has endorsed the religious message of the prayers by permitting a teacher to deliver them to students at school.”
But officials at Fayette High School refused to budge. According to the Missourian, the school responded by stating that it would allow the prayers to continue.
“The school replied to our letter and said it is not changing any of its practices,” Bill Burgess, director of the AHA’s legal center, told the publication. “And so, we were eventually forced to take them to court.”
Therefore, this week, the AHA filed a complaint in federal court against the school district, former principal Rapert and math teacher Pope. It accuses Pope and others of “knowingly or recklessly violat[ing] the Plaintiffs’ clearly established constitutional rights by sponsoring, promoting, endorsing, affiliating herself with and participating in the classroom prayer sessions in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
But some state that AHA’s assertions are incorrect and are praying for a favorable outcome.
“I’m a student at Fayette and half of this is false information,” wrote a student identified as Izzy at the KOMU-TV website. “The teacher was not the one leading the devotionals and prayers; it was students. … [I]t wasn’t the principal who announced that Friday devotions were starting; it was a student member of the club who announced that.”
A parent agreed.
“As a parent of a Fayette graduate and one currently enrolled, neither of my children or any others have been forced to pray in school or attend any devotional,” the mother, named Carmen, wrote. “I believe the facts in this claim have been distorted and the truth will come out that this is a group of students who choose to meet before school starts and they have that right.”
“It’s not easy being a teenager and I could think of much worse things that [students] could be being doing than praying and reading the Bible,” she added.