Chase Windebank, a senior at Pine Creek High School, is the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by legal ministry Alliance Defending Freedom against his Colorado Springs school for allegedly barring him and other students from meeting together during their free time to pray, sing hymns and discuss various subjects.
"Religious speech is expressly protected by the First Amendment, and public schools have no business stopping students from praying together during their free time," ADF Legal Counsel Matt Sharp said in a statement posted on the ADF website.
According to court documents filed last Friday, Windebank and his friends used free time allotted to students during the school day to discuss religious matters in an unoccupied room for the past three years. On Sept. 29 an assistant principal told Windebank and the other students they could only participate in religious activity such as singing and praying before or after school.
The group met following the warning but refrained from praying in an attempt to comply with the new free time policy. The group also tried meeting before school to pray, however attendance dropped from 90 students to 20 because of how difficult it is to arrive at school early.
The high school senior, with the help of ADF, is now asking the court to issue an injunction preventing the school from "denying his right to engage in Christian religious expression."
One issue debated in the lawsuit is whether Windebank and his friends were discussing faith during instructional time.
In a letter to ADF, Director for Legal Relations Patricia Richardson defended the school's decision to discourage the students from meeting during the school day stating "In accordance with the Equal Access Act, non-curriculum related groups such as Chase's prayer group, may meet at Pine Creek High School during non-instructional time." Richardson quoted the administrative policy to define "non-instructional time" as "time set aside for each school before actual classroom instruction begins or after actual classroom instructions ends."
Windebank and his friends were meeting during what he called "Open Time" in the legal documents. The document equated this time to "recess or lunch period" where students often use the time to "read a book, send text messages to their friends or play on their phone."
The Christian Post could not find any mentions of Open Time on the Colorado Springs District 20 website or in Pine Creek High School's policy handbooks. However CP did find a similar instructional period referred to in the Pine Creek High School's 2014-2015 Student/Parent Handbook as "Seminar Time."
Pine Creek's handbook states seminar is a time to "develop a sense of community; to build lines of communication; to provide community and school services; and to have focused academic time."
Students can receive access to peer tutors, teachers, counselors, administrators and the library this time. However there is little to no guidelines mandating that students use their seminar time in this way.
Another District 20 school, Apsen Valley High School has open period called "Puma Lab" after the school's mascot. Apsen Valley's handbook describes Puma Lab is a time for struggling students to receive tutoring, meet with administrators or counselors and study in the library. However it allows passing students to receive "Free Puma."
While there are no guidelines for how to use this Free Puma period, Aspen Valley, like Pine Creek, encourages students "to develop a sense of community, to build lines of communication and to provide community and school service" during that time.
Windebank and ADF also argued that the group did use the Seminar Time as outlined by Pine Creek school officials and often discuss similar issues to the other non-religious groups. However he and his friends discuss those issues from a religious perspective.
The legal action asks the court to prevent the school from infringing on the group's to meet and participate in prayer.