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Prayer circles at school called unconstitutional

Posted at 5:12 PM, Dec 08, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-08 17:12:39-05

SHELBYVILLE, Ind. – A school district may have to let go of one of its long-time sports traditions after it was called into question by a national group accusing the district of violating the constitution.

At Morristown Elementary School 30 minutes southeast of Indianapolis, it’s a common sight at most sports games: Before and after, prayer circles take place.

Officials say the tradition is a way to show sportsmanship and unity. But Shelby Eastern School Board President Jason Redd says last week the district was told the prayer circles are against the law.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) in Washington, D.C., notified the school district that a concerned citizen had contacted the group, and that person is right: The prayer circles violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“There’s not necessarily anything wrong with a few kids praying. The problem is when a coach or teacher gets involved,” AHA legal director David Niose said. “They are on the job working for a public school, and it’s inappropriate for them to endorse a particular belief. It excludes any kid who does not share that belief.”

The AHA – which has sued other districts over religion issues – told Shelby Eastern to fix the problem or face the consequences.

The district says while students often asked for those prayer circles, it will make sure in the future they aren’t led by any staff members.

“Shelby Eastern Schools will abide by those laws,” Redd said. “We’ve had discussions – if there was any wrong-doing – (and) it’s been corrected.”

But he says, don’t expect the prayer circles to stop altogether. The district’s parent-committee Facebook page has been flooded with upset community members who support the tradition.

Redd suspects at least one of those parents will step up in the future to lead the prayer circle, which is legally allowed as long as they aren’t employed by the school.