The latest scare story making the Religious Right rounds involves a group of Colorado high school students who were told they could not meet during the school day for Christian prayer. As usual, the situation is not what it seems.
Fox News fear monger Todd Starnes fanned the flames of this persecution story, which spawned from a lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on behalf of Chase Windebank, a senior at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs.
The ADF said in its lawsuit that Windebank and other students were told they must stop praying as a group during their free time because it is a violation of church-state separation. According to the suit, the group had been meeting in an empty choir room to sing religious songs and discuss current events from a religious perspective during a “seminar” period, which is the first class of the school day.
Starnes laid the sympathy on thickly and you can almost see his tears as you read his words:
“So if you happen to be walking by the choir room at Pine Creek High School you will no longer hear young people praying for their classmates,” he wrote. “You will no longer hear teenagers reading from the Bible. And you will most certainly not hear the sweet sounds of Christian young people singing about that Amazing Grace.”
The school handbook describes the “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. In addition, students will often have time to access the resources available to them at Pine Creek. These include peer tutors, teachers, counselors, administrators and the library. Club meetings may be scheduled during this time.”
In other words, this is instructional time, not a free period. The school has the right to ensure that the students are doing something academic.
In light of that, is the school violating Windebank’s rights? The facts don’t seem to be on the ADF’s side.
I contacted Pine Creek High School to get its side of the story. Nanette Anderson, a school district spokeswoman, provided the following statement, which I am listing in full:
“There is no Open Time Policy, written or unwritten.
“The period of time referenced by the complaint is seminar time during which students report to an assigned seminar class where attendance is taken. This time is counted as academic time toward the minimum hours of instruction that schools are required to provide by state law, and therefore, must be used for academic purposes.
“On Mondays and Wednesdays students in good academic standing may leave the seminar classroom to participate in curriculum-related activities such as studying in the library or with study groups, seeking individual assistance from staff members, or meeting with curriculum-related clubs.
“Seminar is not a period of time during which students may engage in non-curriculum-related activities, religious or otherwise, or participate in non-curriculum related clubs. Non-curriculum-related groups, which include religious groups, are permitted to meet both before and after instructional time.”
Based on that, it seems “seminar” time is not equivalent to a free period. It’s part of the academic day and students are supervised by teachers. Organized prayers, Bible reading and hymn singing would not be appropriate then, just as they would not be appropriate in the middle of physics class.
Even on the two days that some students are allowed to be excused from the class, they are not free to do whatever they want. It seems that time is still structured and it is still part of the academic day.
Additionally, students are not totally forbidden from praying together at the school. School district attorney Patricia Richardson told the Colorado Springs Gazette that students may pray either before or after school hours or during other “non-instructional time” – such as before lunch.
It’s worth noting that even though Pine Creek High may not have done what the ADF claims, it did make some mistakes. Unclear policies have apparently lead to confusion. It also remains unknown why Windebank and his fellow students were initially allowed to have prayer meetings during the “seminar” period if such activity is not permitted during the school day.
The ADF will likely get plenty of publicity from this lawsuit, which has already been blown out of proportion since it was filed late last week. Hopefully a judge will see through the ADF’s misdirection and recognize that students’ religious liberty rights are not in danger.