November 2007 Church & State | People & Events

A Washington, D.C., charter school’s headmaster must stop leading students in prayer during assemblies and other meetings, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has warned.

Attorneys with Americans United acted after receiving complaints from parents at Washington Latin School. The school is located at Christ Church, and its headmaster, T. Robinson Ahlstrom, is accused of leading prayers and weaving religious content into speeches before the students.

In a Sept. 7 letter to Washington Latin officials and the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, Americans United cites parents’ complaints over the school’s convocations, graduations and daily morning meetings that are held in the sanctuary of the church.

In its letter, AU cited one example where Ahlstrom told students that “Christ said to make your enemy your friend” and that Mahatma Gandhi really wanted to be a Christian. He has also invited clergy to give prayers at graduation, and the ceremony is held in a religious setting.

Americans United called on school officials to “refrain from presenting any prayers at morning meetings, convocations, graduations, and other school events or activities” and to remove or cover religious iconography in the church during graduation and other school events.

“Parents, not school officials, are responsible for their children’s religious upbringing,” said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “The blatant melding of religion and public education at Wash­ington Latin School must cease.”

The D.C. Charter Board responded quickly, promising to investigate the matter.

Shortly after the letter was made public, Ahlstrom announced he would resign at the end of the 2007-08 academic year. The move was apparently unrelated to AU’s protest. In a letter posted on the school’s Web site, Ahlstrom alluded to conflict on the board as his reason for stepping down.

Ahlstrom later announced that he had changed his mind and would stay on if the parents wanted him to.

In other news about charter schools in the nation’s capital, Americans United attorneys have advised officials to make certain that a plan to convert several Catholic schools to charters does not run afoul of church-state separation.

Officials with the Archdiocese of Wash­­ington recently announced that eight Catholic schools will be turned into public charters. In an Oct. 4 letter to church officials and the charter board, AU pointed out that if the conversion takes place, the former Catholic schools would be subjected to the same rules as public schools.

This means, AU pointed out, that daily prayer must cease, religious symbols must be removed and the schools would not be permitted to tailor their instruction to the tenets of Catholi­cism.

Asserts the letter, “[I]n order to comply with constitutional requirements, the Archdiocese would need to relinquish its control and influence over the converted schools, and permit them to operate in a nonreligious manner.”