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Atheists, Christians & School Officials Clash Over Morning Prayer at a Public School Flagpole

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“...It is a violation of the United States Constitution..."

Clay Hill Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida, finds itself in the middle of an epic battle over the separation of church and state.

It's Baptist Pastor Ron Baker versus the Clay County School District. Of course, outside groups, too, have joined into the intense debate. The pastor, who has been holding prayer meetings at several of the district's schools for most than a decade, was recently told by the school board that doing so is unconstitutional.

But despite officials' warnings, he claims he has no intention of ceasing. According to Jacksonville.com, he said:

“I think if I were to stop, it somehow sends the message that I think it must be wrong. Why wouldn’t I want to pray for the safety and security of that school, pray for all those teachers and administration, pray for all those students.”

Let's delve a bit further into the details, as this one's a bit tough to follow. The Huffington Post reports that the center of the debate appears to hinge on a morning prayer meeting that occurs at 8:15 a.m. at Clay Hill Elementary School. In an opinion written up by J. Bruce Bickner, an attorney for the board, these prayers aren't legal -- an idea that religious rights groups disagree with.

“...It is a violation of the United States Constitution for a teacher, school administrator or other school district employee to join in a prayer session during their work time," Bickner wrote.

The controversy commenced when, as WOKV.com reports, "Clay Hill principal Larry Davis sent out a memo in September urging students and members of the community to take part in the prayer circle." The memo promoted the prayer session to the school's 40-member staff, while citing a controversial article that claims that the First Amendment only applies to Christians. Below, find the principal's letter:

Memo/Newsletter from Principal Larry Davis

This, of course, caught the attention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist and "freethinkers'" rights group. Annie Laurie Gaylor, the organization's president, says she was "horrified" by the language in the letter. So, the FFRF wrote a letter asking for the sessions to be stopped. Here's it is:

Freedom from Religion Foundation's letter to Clay County Schools

But the letter-writing didn't end there. Responding to the FFRF, Liberty Counsel, a group that represents the interests of faith leaders and others, called the group's demands "unconstitutional." You can see a portion of Liberty Counsel's letter below or click here to read the entire thing.

Sensing that the situation is a sensitive one, the school's superintendent suggested that the group try and meet earlier in the day before staff members were on campus. Baker, though, isn't bowing to the district's demands, nor is he listening to officials' suggestions. "We're not changing anything," he has said.

This past Monday, Baker pushed on with his plans to hold the prayer event at the regularly-scheduled time and location. WOKV.com has more:

A crowd of about 100 people -- many adults and relatively few schoolchildren -- gathered outside the flag pole at 8:15...to hear a prayer led by Pastor Ron Baker of Russell Baptist Church. [...]

Before the prayer, a defiant Baker told WOKV news he has every right to do what he's doing.

"We're not breaking the law.  We're exercising our rights well within school board policy (and) well within constitutional guidelines."

Jacksonville.com estimated that last week's crowd was filled with about 150 people, describing it as "big." Below, see footage from last week's prayer meeting at the flagpole:

At least one parent has reported that these prayer sessions have always been held before school hours and that they are voluntary and not mandatory. "Did you ever think that in America you'd be in trouble for praying at the flag? It's disturbing," Baker told Fox News' Todd Starnes earlier this month.

The school board will be meeting on November 14 to discuss prayers on school property.

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