Superintendent defends back-to-school worship service after atheist group complains

Fyffe High School in DeKalb County, Alabama

An Alabama school superintendent defended a local high school that hosted a worship rally on Sunday after a complaint was filed by one of the nation's leading secularist legal groups. 

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Jason Barnett told Fox News on Tuesday that he doesn't believe the law was broken by Fyffe High School's hosting of a "back-to-school" worship rally in the school's gymnasium. 

The rally, which has become an annual tradition over the last few years, was reportedly attended by hundreds after news broke of a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. 

The Wisconsin-based FFRF, which pressures school districts and government agencies to end any perceived entanglement with religion, sent a letter on July 26 to Barnett arguing that the school's promotion of the worship event was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Considering the Establishment Clause prohibits state endorsement of religion, a concerned DeKalb County parent voiced concern to FFRF and claimed that the event was being organized by school officials.

In its letter, FFRF shared a screenshot of a since-deleted Facebook post from the school's account that seemed to promote the event. 

Taking place just after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, the school's Facebook post asked community members to join in praying for "God's protective hand to be over our schools, facilities, and students." 

FFRF legal fellow Christopher Line argued in the letter, "Organizing and promoting religious worship events unconstitutionally entangles school personnel with an exclusively religious — often exclusively Christian — message. Public school teachers and administrators may not lead, direct or ask students to engage in prayer or otherwise endorse religion." 

Among a number of cases, Line's letter cites the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, which ruled that the state cannot hold an official prayer in public school even if participation is not required by students.

Barnett contended, however, that the event was organized by non-school-affiliated community members and was approved by the school board in the same manner other community events held at the school are approved. 

"To my knowledge, no administrators or faculty members were involved in the organization and planning of the event," Barnett told Fox News

Barnett explained that the Facebook post was not meant to be a promotion but rather an announcement of the event, just like the page announces other community events held at the school. 

"The 'us' in the Facebook announcement refers to the organizers of the event, not the school or the school board," Barnett was quoted as saying. 

He told WAAY31 that several churches have paid to rent out the high school gym in the past. 

Line told WAAY31 that he has an issue with the Facebook post. 

"The thing that we are really worried about is what it looks like as in this case where the school is posting about it on Facebook, where it appears that this is a school event and that the school itself is endorsing religion," Line said. "That's where the constitutional violation occurs."

Barnett argued that in DeKalb county, schools are the central hub for community information. 

"Oftentimes, schools ... provide general information about things that impact our local community," Barnett was quoted as saying. "Not necessarily in promotion of, but just provide general information about events and ongoing things that happen within the community." 

Earlier this year, FFRF voiced concern with another Alabama school district over baptisms that were held on a high school campus.  FFRF sent a letter to Washington County Schools, objecting after 18 football players were baptized while coaches were overseeing the ceremony. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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