Attorneys with Americans United for Separation of Church and State have urged a Florida school district to rein in a principal who is using his position to promote Christianity.
AU received complaints about a newsletter issued by Larry Davis, principal of Clay Hill Elementary School near Jacksonville. In a Sept. 30 newsletter issued to about 40 employees, Davis endorsed flagpole-prayer sessions at the school and went on to assert, “Freedom comes from obeying God. Let’s get active to bring back the Holy Bible and Christian prayer to schools.”
Davis also quoted a California pastor named Steven Andrew who promotes “Christian nation” views on his website, faith316.com.
Davis wrote, “Pastor Steven Andrew states: ‘Our children need God back in schools’ and he is calling Christians nationwide to bring back the Holy Bible and Christian prayer to schools. The First Amendment was for Christians only, not other religions.”
In an interview with the Florida Times-Union, Davis said he did not see a problem with Andrew’s language.
“This is his opinion and what he says,” Davis said. “To me, it just looked like it all went together with the morals. I don’t think it was a stretch at all for him to make those comments or for me to share them.”
Flagpole-prayer sessions have become common in some public schools and are permissible if they are run by students and don’t include school sponsorship or promotion. In the newsletter, Davis made it clear that the devotionals at Clay Hill Elementary are tied to the school. He consistently referred to them as “our prayer around the school’s flagpole event.”
The flagpole prayer sessions in Clay County aren’t run by students. They are led by Pastor Ron Baker of Russell Baptist Church in Green Cove Springs. Ben Wortham, superintendent of the Clay County School District, has asked Baker to stop the prayers, but Baker has refused.
“I think if we stop, it somehow sends the message that I think it must be wrong,” Baker said. “Why wouldn’t I want to pray for the safety and security of that school, pray for all those teachers and administrators, pray for all those students?”
In a letter to Wortham, AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan asserted that the prayer sessions raise constitutional red flags and undermine the principle of church-state separation.
“It is unconstitutional to provide a special benefit to a religious community group – such as the right to enter school grounds and have access to students for an activity – that is not provided to any other community group,” Khan wrote.
The worship services are taking place at Clay Hill Elementary and three other schools in the district. The prayers occur just before the school day begins, and staff members often participate.
The district’s attorney, J. Bruce Bickner, has examined the matter and advised the district to discontinue the sessions. In a legal opinion, Bickner asserted that district employees have no right to pray with students.
Wortham told the Times-Union that he, too, has concerns about the prayer practice.
“I think we’re over the line in terms of what is allowed in the public schools for an administrator to be, in a sense, promoting this,” Wortham said.