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Atheist Group Sues High School After Faculty Refuses to Change Morning Prayer Tradition

Atheists in central Missouri have filed a lawsuit against a local high school for partaking in what it describes as "teacher-sponsored prayer." The lawsuit comes after officials at the school refused to pander to a threatening letter from the atheist organization sent back in May. 

The legal arm of the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri last Wednesday, alleging that Fayette High School, located in mid-Missouri, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by allowing a Christian-themed prayer to take place on school grounds.

The prayer was reportedly held by one of the high school's math teachers, Gwen Pope, at the start of every day after the school buses arrived at the school but before classes began, around 7:30 a.m. The prayer was reportedly announced by Principal Darren Rapert over the intercom to invite students to attend, and Pope also reportedly invited students during the prayer to remember their sick classmates and participated in saying "amen" with the students at the end of the prayer.

The lawsuit alleges that the school district's policy states that teachers "may not sponsor, promote, or lead student-initiated groups or meetings. However, a teacher, administrator or other school employee may be assigned to the meeting to monitor facility use and student conduct."

"Employees and agents of the school are to be present solely in a nonparticipatory capacity at any student-initiated religious activity held at school and will strictly observe a policy of official neutrality regarding religious activity," the policy adds, according to the lawsuit. The American Humanist Association argues that because Pope was participating in the prayers, she violated the school district's policy towards religious involvement at a public school.

In addition to holding the morning prayers for students who wished to attend, Pope was also reportedly the faculty advisor of a Christian student group on campus. The lawsuit also claims that the math teacher displayed a Christian-themed book prominently on her desk and referenced God while teaching her math class.

The atheist group reportedly sent a letter to the school district in May after an atheist student complained about the prayers, and at the time, the school district responded by saying it would not change any of its policies. Therefore, the group decided to pursue legal action.

"The school replied to our letter and said it is not changing any of its practices," Bill Burgess, the director of the AHA's legal center, told the local KBIA radio station. "And so, we were eventually forced to take them to court."

According to the Associated Press, both Pope and Rappert have left the school since the letter was sent, but the humanist association believes there are still daily prayer meetings taking place, and the association hopes the lawsuit will set a precedent against teacher-sponsored prayer in the future. "What we are challenging is that the district has established a policy of allowing teachers to pray with students," Monica Miller, an attorney for the humanist association, told the Associated Press.

The American Humanist Association also recently threatened lawsuits against two public elementary schools, one in South Carolina and another in Colorado, for their participation in Franklin Graham's Operation Christmas Child. Both schools ended their participation with the program so as not to waste time and resources fighting a lawsuit, but parents of the Colorado school, SkyView Academy, say they are rallying to raise funds for Operation Christmas Child independently of the school. The charitable program provides shoeboxes filled with hygiene products and gifts, as well as a pamphlet on Christianity to needy children across the world.

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