Do students need permission to pray? The principal of a Wyoming school thought so, until she was confronted with the First Amendment.
Back in October, a group of Glendo High School students gathered to pray out loud for their meal during lunch. Afterwards, Stanetta Twiford, the school’s principal, said “enough,” accusing students of forcing their religion on others.
Twiford apparently took issue with the public nature of the prayer and allegedly told the students that they would be allowed to pray in private, in the hallway or gymnasium, with permission.
The principal stood by the rule, even after the parent of three of the students confronted her and District Superintendent Dennis Fischer. Using information they claimed to have read from the American Civil Liberties Union, the two administrators asserted that the Constitution prohibits the prayer, as students witnessing it were a “captive audience.”
After hearing this, the parents of two other students took their complaints to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group known for defending Christians in cases like this. The ADF responded with a letter to the district on Dec. 4, threatening to take legal action if the ban persisted.
“School cafeterias are not religion-free zones, and they certainly do not involve captive audiences,” the ADF letter stated. “Students in the cafeteria are not captive audiences because they can leave at any time or turn away from the quiet prayer in the corner. ... Further, students in the cafeteria are no more a captive audience than students in the hallway or students on a playground.”
The ADF informed Twiford and Fischer that non-disruptive speech occurring during “non-instructional time” must be allowed and that the Supreme Court agrees on this point.
“So long as non-disruptive speech occurs during non-instructional time, schools must allow that speech. The Supreme Court has already confirmed this very point,” the ADF added.
The Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale determined that the Constitution prohibits compulsory school or state-sponsored prayer. Private and student-led prayers, however, are allowed.
The school administrators have since changed their tone. In a letter to the ADF dated Dec. 17, Fischer noted that the district’s attorney agreed that the students’ prayer did not violate federal law and that he has advised Twiford “to let the students know that they can pray before meals in the manner they had in the incident in question. … I feel our staff and district have a better understanding of students’ rights regarding prayer and how to handle future incidents.”
Fischer also reported that students prayed in the cafeteria “at least once … and will continue to be allowed to do so.”