A Mississippi high school principal and teachers, threatened with an investigation because they participated in a privately held prayer event meant to usher in a school year, are now being reassured of their right to express their faith.
Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a separation of church and state watchdog group based in Madison, Wis., sent out letters calling for the Pascagoula school district to investigate Pascagoula High School Principal Al Sparkman for attending a community-hosted prayer circle for neighbors, parents and students.
"We request an immediate investigation into this situation and appropriate steps be taken to prevent future prayer events organized by school officials," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. "The district must immediately end Principal Sparkman's practice of encouraging organizing prayer events at Pascagoula High School."
The event, open to community members as well as faculty and staff, was held outside of the school, in front of the building's entrance. The prayer vigil was held several days before the official start of the school 2011-2012 year.
The FFRF asserted Sparkman's attendance violated the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause forbidding the state endorsement of religion.
"It sends a message that the approximate 15 percent of the population that is nonreligious are 'outsiders' and second-class citizens," said Schmitt.
FFRF claims to be the nation's largest group for atheists, agnostics, and skeptics and boasts a membership of 16,000.
Religious liberty legal group Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is now encouraging the school in its efforts with letters of its own.
The legal firm asserts that Sparkman and the teachers who attended the community prayer were doing so as individuals acting in an unofficial capacity and cannot be punished exercising their right to free speech.
ADF letters to the Pascagoula district Superintendent contend, "The Supreme Court has recognized that 'there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.'"
ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman concluded, "Contrary to what the Freedom From Religion Foundation is arguing, this is not a government establishment of religion by any stretch of the imagination, except theirs."
Youth Pastor Will Seymore and other pastors who hosted the event prayed that God would guide students' minds and lead them to "change the world in a positive way."
Sparkman was said to have requested the prayer meeting as the school's principal, according to local television channel WLOX. However, ADF contends that he did not organize the meeting.
Several teachers also attended and listened to community members' questions and concerns.
"Public school principals, teachers, and staff members should not be threatened for exercising their constitutionally protected right to organize and participate in private, religious events in their personal capacities," said Cortman.