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ACLU demands WL school prayer stop

Some students at West Lincoln Attendance Center gathered early Thursday morning in a parking lot by the school’s gymnasium, formed a circle and prayed aloud, a move that comes the day after West Lincoln fell under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union.

     Mississippi’s ACLU chapter contacted the Lincoln County School District Wednesday through a letter and charged West Lincoln with persistent violations of constitutional provisions barring state sponsorship of religion.

     The ACLU’s letter says West Lincoln has a “pervasive policy and practice of incorporating prayer and other religious messages into myriad school events and activities.”

     Thursday morning, Superintendent Terry Brister said he’d be discussing the details of the charges with West Lincoln Principal Jason Case to determine if the school has violated the law.

     “We’re looking into all alleged violations,” Brister said.

     If constitutional violations have occurred, then remedies will be required, Brister said.

     “We’ll adjust accordingly to abide by all laws and regulations,” said the superintendent.

     Case did not return phone calls seeking comment.

     In its letter, the ACLU cites instances of officially sanctioned prayer at school events, including assemblies, staff meetings, athletic events and graduation ceremonies. The letter pointedly identifies Case as fostering religious practices.

     “This really is quite pervasive and not behind closed doors,” said Bear Atwood, legal director of the Mississippi ACLU, in an interview Wednesday. “It’s very much in public.”

     Based on an initial review, Brister said he’s confident some of the allegations are baseless, but he acknowledged others appear to have merit.

     “There do appear to be some that are violations,” Brister said, declining to elaborate until further assessment.

     Atwood framed the issues as one of individual freedom.

     “This really is about respecting parents’ rights to teach religion in their own homes, respecting students’ rights and parents’ rights to believe what they want to believe without any coercion,” she said.

     Though noting the district may need to take action, Brister was quick to add he wants to preserve the freedom of students and faculty to participate in religious practices as constitutionally allowed.

     “Although we will abide by all laws set forth by the Constitution of the United States, I will not deny the civil rights of my students and faculty,” Brister said.

     It’s unclear who organized Thursday morning’s prayer demonstration at West Lincoln or whether faculty were involved, though all participants appeared to be students.

     Atwood said the ACLU received a complaint about religious activities at West Lincoln approximately one month ago and proceeded to investigate the matter.

     “We take this very seriously,” Atwood said. “Our first step is always to document.”

     The Mississippi ACLU posted on its website several photos taken at West Lincoln, including a cross on a classroom or office door and a “Teacher’s Prayer” poster on a wall.

     Brister said he’s never personally seen crosses or other religious objects at West Lincoln and that he’s received no complaints in the last year pertaining to prayer at West Lincoln.

     He called the ACLU’s letter a complete surprise.

     “This morning it came out of the clear,” Brister said Wednesday afternoon. “I was caught off guard.”

     The latest controversy about religious observances in the Lincoln County School District falls about a year after the district barred all prayer over the public address system before athletic events, a policy spurred by a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent to Mississippi superintendents.

     Atwood highlighted this letter in discussing church/state separation violations at West Lincoln.

     “There’s no question they were on notice that they shouldn’t be doing this,” she said.

     Atwood has requested the district submit a plan for abating the promotion of religion in the district by Oct. 26, and Brister is confident he’ll be able to do so earlier.

     The ACLU threatens “further legal action” should barred activities at West Lincoln continue.

     “We are prepared to do that,” Atwood said. “We would prefer not to, but we are prepared to.”

     Further legal action could take the form of a lawsuit against the district.

     The ACLU has also filed a lengthy public records request seeking internal memos, handbooks and other documents. Brister said he will comply with the request in consultation with the district’s attorney.

     Brister also said he wanted to assure parents of the district he has no legal options.

     “Separation of church and state took place with the Constitution,” he said. “I don’t have a choice.”