A south Arkansas superintendent responded late last week to accusations of "serious constitutional violations" at his school district, arguing that his district is allowing religious expression as required by state and federal laws.
Prescott School District Superintendent Robert Poole said in an interview Thursday that prayers featured in posts earlier this month on the district's Facebook page were "student-led" and therefore a "constitutional right." He also defended a post about students receiving and reading copies of the New Testament, arguing that, since classes that study the Bible are allowed at public schools, people should be able to donate copies to the district for children to read.
The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which wrote a letter dated May 11 that accuses the district of violating the U.S. Constitution, argued that prayer at Prescott Elementary School was led by faculty and staff and insisted that the school "immediately cease praying with students and refrain from distributing religious literature to students in the future."
The foundation describes itself as a national nonprofit whose purpose is to "protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism." It has a chapter in Arkansas, according to the letter.
The argument over the place of religion in Arkansas' public schools is also taking place as the U.S. Department of Education released updated guidance last week on prayer and religious expression in public schools.
In a May 4 Facebook post pointed to by the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter, the district wrote, "This is a sight that should make anyone happy! It sure does us! Our 5th and 6th grade students received New Testament Bibles today and were reading them at lunch and even on the bus this afternoon. God is so good! #impactthepack" The post includes several photos of students reading the books. Another post shows a photo of several children at a cafeteria table, with several adults around them, their heads bowed. It reads, "Our sweet little pre-K students praying before they eat lunch! At Prescott, we pray."
The two posts are no longer publicly visible on the district's Facebook page.
When asked Thursday whether the district planned to respond to the letter, Poole said the school's attorney was working on a reply. However, he added that the attorney is usually busy as the school year comes to an end, and that responsibilities with preparing the district for going to schools across the state due to recent legislation have added to their workload.
Samantha F. Lawrence, a legal fellow with the foundation and the woman who wrote its letter to the district, confirmed in an email Friday morning that her organization hadn't yet received a response.
The letter argues that when a district leads students in prayer, encourages them to pray or distributes Bibles to them, it "displays blatant favoritism toward Christianity" and "coerces elementary school students to participate in a religious exercise and accept religious literature."
Poole said the posts were made because "we just like to highlight things that are going on in the district." The praying shown in the post was entirely student-led, despite the foundation's assertion that the prayer was led by district employees, according to the superintendent.
"Some kids got together and they prayed," he said. "I don't know why so many people are offended by that, but that's their constitutional right."
The federal government's guidance on prayer and religious expression in schools, which was updated May 15, asserts that students "may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other comparable conversations or activities." Further, the guidance states that schools are allowed to place "rules of order" and "pedagogical restrictions" on students' activities, but cannot discriminate against students' prayer or religious perspectives in doing so.
However, school employees are forbidden from "encouraging or discouraging" private prayer or other religious activities.
The foundation argued that elementary schools are "inherently coercive" environments and that when preschoolers are encouraged to pray, "students that young will no doubt take that as a command that they must obey."
Poole pointed to moments of silence, which are mandated in schools by Arkansas law. The law, signed by then-Gov. Mike Beebe in 2013, requires all Arkansas public schools to observe a daily minute of silence to allow students to "reflect," "pray" or "engage in a silent activity."
"Every morning, during that moment of silence time, they have time to pray," he said. "That's state law."
He also said no one at his district forces students to pray during that time, or are "forcing any type of religion on them."
Poole likewise argued that no one required students to take the New Testaments donated to the district, and that it was their choice to read them.
Groups have similarly donated biblical literature to districts across the United States, he said, adding that Gideons International had been distributing Bibles "ever since I was in school."
"They never forced people to take them," he said. "Nobody ever forced me to take a book or read it, or tried to push certain religion on me. They just said 'Hey, here's a Bible. If you'd like one, here it is.'"
The foundation, however, asserted that it is unconstitutional for public schools to allow such distribution in classrooms during the school day. They pointed to a 1993 ruling in Berger v. Rensselaer Central Sch. Corp., in which the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals declared that distribution of Gideon Bibles to fifth grade students violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. In their ruling, the judges described as "unrealistic" the expectation that a student "troubled by religious exercise" would feel comfortable objecting in a school setting because of "coercive pressures" from teachers, administrators and peers.
The Prescott superintendent also defended his district's posts about students receiving and reading the New Testament by highlighting a 2019 state law that requires schools to offer classes on the Bible if enough students request such courses.
"We can teach history of the Bible, and the Holy Bible is a book you can use to teach history of the Bible within schools," he said. "So the books are approved books."
He added, "Anything that's free and kids can read, I don't think there should be any harm in that."
PUBLIC CRITICISM, SUPPORT
Beyond the Freedom From Foundation's letter, the district's posts have also met with a flurry of criticism and support from others on social media, from bloggers and former politicians to local religious leaders and community members.
In Prescott, several residents spoke out on Facebook last week, praising the district's posts and promising action in support of religious expression at the schools. Some changed their profile pictures to read, "IN PRESCOTT, WE PRAY" in the district's colors, maroon and white, and said they would organize a circle of prayer around the school to combat what one called efforts to "destroy the atmosphere of prayer in our school." The posts didn't indicate when the event would take place.
Donnie Deaton, who preaches at the local ministry Calvary, wrote Wednesday, "It's my promise and word that EVERY child in Prescott School district WILL have a Bible in their hands next school year." He added that the students would be "prayed over and prayed with," as well.
In a reply to his post, one commenter asked, "Why stop with Prescott," and pointed to public schools in Nevada, Clark and Ouachita counties. Deaton responded to the post by writing, "I'm all for it."
Messages to Deaton and Calvary seeking information about the plans did not receive a reply by deadline Friday.
The day after the Freedom From Religion Foundation penned its letter, Greg Henderson, a former Little Rock mayoral candidate and the publisher/president of the food blog Rock City Eats, wrote on Twitter about the district's Facebook posts, saying, "In Arkansas we cherry pick our constitutional amendments just like the parts of the Bible we choose to believe." The post was viewed more than 34,000 times. In an accompanying post, he also referenced the establishment clause of the Constitution, which forbids the government from favoring one religion over others.
About half an hour later, Kerri Jackson Case, whose profile indicates that she is also from Little Rock, suggested that the district was indoctrinating students.
"Imagine if these were copies of the Quran. I'm certain praise for Allah would be forthcoming," she wrote in the post, which received 100,000 views and also drew dozens of retweets.
In a May 17 post, former state Sen. Jason Rapert encouraged the district to tell the foundation to "go pound sand." He argued that the "lemon test," which was once a tool used to determine whether legislation violated the establishment clause, had been effectively overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, his post didn't explain how the arguments in the foundation's letter relied on the test.
Lawrence, the foundation's lawyer, said complaints similar to the one made about the Prescott district are "pretty common." If the group doesn't receive a response to their letter they will follow up, asking the district again to reply, indicate whether they received the initial letter and describe action they will take to address the complaint.
When the foundation believes constitutional violations are "fairly blatant," they continue to monitor the subject at hand and "consider all available courses of action," she said.
She described the controversy over the district's posts as "completely avoidable."
"If the public schools just stay in their lanes and remain neutral and follow the law like they're supposed to, none of this would be happening and they wouldn't bring any of this angst into their community," she said.
Poole, however, said his district was "going to still follow the law."
"We're going to allow kids to pray, and teachers to pray when they want to pray," the superintendent said.
The district's administrators will double-check with its policies and lawyer to ensure that they are complying with the law in spite of the foundation's claims, according to Poole.
"A lot of times that's not exactly cut-and-dry like they think it is."