Americans United Calls On Washington, D.c., Charter School To Cease Religious Activities

School-Sponsored Religion At Washington Latin School Violates Constitution, Says Church-State Watchdog Group

A Washington, D.C., charter school that conducts graduations and other school gatherings in a church sanctuary and whose headmaster leads students in prayer is running afoul of the First Amendment, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United has warned that school-sponsored religious activities at Washington Latin School violate the principle of church-state separation and urged officials to cease conducting school gatherings in church settings and leading students in prayer.

“Parents, not school officials, are responsible for their children’s religious upbringing,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The blatant melding of religion and public education at Washington Latin School must cease.”

In a 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 Christ Church on Embassy Row. It also notes the headmaster’s leading of students in prayer.

Americans United asserts that Headmaster T. Robinson Ahlstrom has also weaved religious commentary into addresses before students, such as telling students that “Christ said to make your enemy your friend” and that Mahatma Gandhi really wanted to be a Christian.

Beyond conducting the school’s graduation ceremonies in a pervasively religious setting, Americans United notes that Ahlstrom has invited clergy to give prayers at the ceremonies.

Americans United, citing federal court precedent, states in its Sept. 7 letter that “there are heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools.”

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.

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said the issues at Washington Latin are important.

“Federal courts have made clear that public schools, including charter schools, are not to be in the business of promoting religion,” said Khan. “Public schools should focus on educating students, not leading them in worship.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.