Wyoming school district lifts ban on private prayer in school cafeterias

Decision comes in response to ADF letter sent on behalf of three students
Friday, December 18, 2015

Attorney sound bites:  Jonathan Scruggs | Jeremy Tedesco

WHEATLAND, Wyo. – Platte County School District #1 has lifted its ban on non-disruptive, private prayer in its school cafeterias after receiving a letter from Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of three students that explained that such prayer is completely legal and constitutional.

“No student should be prevented from engaging in private prayer alone or quietly with other students on campus,” said ADF Legal Counsel Jonathan Scruggs. “The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on this specifically. The First Amendment protects the right to pray in a non-disruptive manner not just in private but in public, too. The district has done the right thing in lifting its unconstitutional ban.”

On Oct. 15, a few students went to the back of the lunchroom at Glendo High School and formed a small circle while one student prayed for their meal. No teacher initiated, encouraged, or participated in the prayer, and the student only prayed in a way so that the other students in the circle could hear. The prayer did not create any disruptions or cause any problems in the noisy cafeteria.

After the lunch period, Principal Stanetta Twiford confronted one of the students and told her that the students were not allowed to pray during lunch because they were pushing their religion on other students. According to Twiford, if the students wanted to pray, they had to receive permission and then go into the gym or hall away from other students.

A parent of three of the children discussed the situation with Twiford and District Superintendent Dennis Fischer, but the two stood by the ban, claiming that the Constitution prohibited the prayer because any other students observing it were a “captive audience,” according to information they claimed to read from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“School cafeterias are not religion-free zones, and they certainly do not involve captive audiences,” the ADF letter sent Dec. 4 explained. “Students in the cafeteria are not captive audiences because they can leave at any time or turn away from the quiet prayer in the corner…. Further, students in the cafeteria are no more a captive audience than students in the hallway or students on a playground…. So long as non-disruptive speech occurs during non-instructional time, schools must allow that speech. The Supreme Court has already confirmed this very point…”

In a letter to ADF dated Dec. 17, Fischer said that the district’s attorney concurred that the students’ prayer did not violate federal law and that he has advised Twiford “to let the students know that they can pray before meals in the manner they had in the incident in question. The students have since prayed at least once in this manner and will continue to be allowed to do so…. I feel our staff and district have a better understanding of students’ rights regarding prayer and how to handle future incidents.”

“We hope this incident will help other school districts better understand what the Constitution truly requires,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “The First Amendment protects – not forbids – this type of student religious expression.”
  • Pronunciation guide: Tedesco (Tuh-DESS’-koh)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

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