Colorado high school senior Chase Windebank has been leading a prayer group with other students at Pine Creek High School for the past three years. In September, Assistant Principal James Lucas told Windebank he could no longer hold the prayer meetings during school hours, claiming that the “separation of church and state” requires a ban on religious speech during open periods. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a federal lawsuit on Windebank’s behalf Friday seeking to reverse the ban and allow students to meet once again.
Windebank and the other students held their meetings, during which they prayed, sang, and discussed current events from a religious perspective, in an empty choir room (with the teacher’s permission) during their “Seminar Time.”
Seminar Time, as described in the Pine Creek High School 2014-2015 Student/Parent Handbook, is a period for students to “develop a sense of community; to build lines of communication; to provide community and school services; and to have focused academic time.” Students in good academic standing are allowed to leave their seminar classrooms for part of the period; there are no hard guidelines as to how the time is to be used.
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The lawsuit states that students use that time to “engage in a virtually unlimited variety of activities, including hanging out in the cafeteria and other open areas with friends, playing on their phones, meeting together for expressive activities (including both formally recognized clubs and unofficial groups) and going outside to hang out together.”
Windebank and the other students tried to acquiesce to the school’s demands, still meeting together but not using the time to pray. They also tried meeting in the mornings before school, but attendance dropped from around 90 to less than 20 because students were not able to get to school early.
Windebank eventually went to the ADF, which sent a letter to the school district:
“We write to inform you that the school’s bar on Chase’s informal prayer group violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which requires schools to permit student speech so long as it is not materially and substantially disruptive. Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 511 (1969). Here, Chase’s prayer meetings have a three year track record of no disruptions whatsoever. The School thus is violating Chase’s and his classmate’s rights under Tinker by banning the prayer meetings.”
Instead of backing down, the school fought back, sending a letter of their own:
“In accordance with the Equal Access Act, non-curriculum related groups, such as Chase’s prayer group, may meet at Pine Creek High School during non-instructional time. Our administrative policy JJA defines “noninstructional time.” “For purposes of this policy, ‘noninstructional time’ means time set aside by each school before actual classroom instruction begins or after actual classroom instruction ends, and may include specific activity periods set aside for this purpose.” Seminar at Pine Creek is not homeroom time. It is class time and it is considered instructional time. No non-curricular clubs are permitted to meet during that time period at Pine Creek High School. Therefore, Mr. Windebank may resume his prayer meetings at Pine Creek High School, but he must do so during non-instructional time, that is before 7:45 a.m. when classes begin, and after 2:45 p.m., when classes end for the day.”
Because the school would not back down, the ADF filed a lawsuit, Windebank v. Academy School District #20, in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
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Kerri Kupec, legal communications director for the ADF, spoke with Ainsley Earhardt on “Fox and Friends Weekend” on Saturday about the matter:
“The school says separation of church and state, but there’s a big problem with that. For starters, that’s not even found in the Constitution. But what is found in the Constitution is the First Amendment, which expressly protects the exact kind of conversation that Chase and his classmates are having. It expressly protects the activities that they’re engaging in right now.”
Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel for the ADF, elaborated in an interview with Brietbart News:
“All too often, we see students’ activities related to religion or prayer in schools shut down. Separation of church and state is frequently cited, though it’s not a phrase in the Constitution. It’s an old, tired, overused and inaccurate expression of what the First Amendment protects. This is private students’ speech, so it is protected under the First Amendment.”
Tedesco said that public schools should be encouraging the free exchange of ideas, not censoring them–but lamented that “All too often it is Christians who are losing out when other groups are not obstructed.”
The ADF is seeking the restoration of praying, singing, and discussion of topics from a religious perspective, a judgment declaring that prohibiting those actions is unconstitutional, legal fees, and $1 for the violation of Windebank’s constitutional rights.
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h/t The Daily Signal
Photo credit: ADF
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