Atheists protest ‘unconstitutional’ prayer breakfast at Georgia high school

Students at Spalding High School in Griffin, Ga., pray on August 23, 2019. | Screenshot: AHA

The American Humanist Association, a non-profit group that advocates for humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans, has accused the Griffin-Spalding School Systems in Georgia of hosting “unconstitutional school prayer activity” for student athletes, but the school district says the students have been leading their own prayer and they have a constitutional right to do so.

The group announced on Monday that their legal team sent a warning letter to Superintendent James Smith and Lindy Pruitt, principal of Spalding High School, stating a concerned parent informed them that the high school hosted a prayer breakfast and sermon for football players provided by Griffin First United Methodist Church.

“The Griffin First United Methodist Church hosted a breakfast and sermon for football players at Spalding High School, in clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The school softball coaches also lead the team in prayer before games,” the AHA said in a release this week.

In the letter sent to the school officials, the Monica L. Miller, legal director and senior counsel of the AHA, said they were informed that on Aug. 23, “the District permitted Griffin First United Methodist Church (‘Church’) to host a breakfast and sermon for SHS football players, at the school, ahead of a game scheduled for that evening. The District’s Facebook account re-posted a post from the Church promoting the event with the caption, ‘Thank you First United Method Church!’”

The controversial Facebook post. | Screenshot: AHA

She argued that the move shows a “deep pattern of disregard for the Constitution, as well as strong favoritism toward Christianity within the District’s football and softball programs, creating a coercive atmosphere that is hostile to both non-Christians and Christians.”

“Not only did the school permit attempts to indoctrinate students, the school and the district publicly celebrated this constitutional violation on social media,” Miller noted.

A statement from Griffin-Spalding County School System to WSB-TV confirmed that they received the AHA’s letter but insist that no laws were broken. The Aug. 23 post referenced by the AHA on the district’s Facebook page is no longer publicly available.

“Every Friday morning at 7 a.m., the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meets at Spalding High School. Attendance by any student is voluntary. The football coach knew that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes met at that time, so he invited a couple of churches to provide breakfast for them during football season,” the school district said.

“The Spalding High School Girls Softball Team participated in a student-initiated, student led prayer. The coach was standing there in silence with his head bowed, out of respect for the students who were gathered in prayer. The other group photo was a team from another county. Based on the district's review, our students and staff were in compliance with the law,” the statement added.

About a dozen parents with students at the school also told WSB-TV that they did not support the AHA’s position.

"I'm a Christian myself and we need prayer. We don't need to stop it,” parent Sharon Helms said.

School officials have yet to respond to the AHA but Miller told WSB-TV that they recently won a similar case against a police station in Florida. She said if they don’t hear from the school they will be looking further into the matter.

“The intrusion of religion in public schools is an ongoing concern as the religious right, led by campaigns like Project Blitz, seeks to impose its sectarian agenda across the country. The American Humanist Association works to protect the First Amendment in all public institutions and previously expressed alarm over new legislation in multiple states requiring the prominent display of ‘In God We Trust’ in public schools,” the AHA said in their release.

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