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GUEST COLUMN: School children have First Amendment rights that deserve protection

An atheist legal organization recently threatened the West Branch School District over its long-standing tradition of prayer before athletic competitions. In response, the school district changed its policy, to the great dismay of the local community.

My law firm, First Liberty Institute, often advises and represents schools and students around the country on issues of religious liberty. A local couple with children in the West Branch schools retained us to investigate the current matter on behalf of their children. Our goals are to prevent hostility toward religion, ensure West Branch student rights are being protected, and help the community maximize individual freedoms and liberties.

That’s why we sent a letter to the West Branch school district offering to meet with the superintendent and school board to give our assessment of the situation and discuss the school district’s options moving forward. Hopefully the school will meet with us and allow us to help.

Sadly, this is not the first time I have seen this same scenario play out in a community. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last.

Sadder, however, is the collateral harm triggered by such a loss. This damage comes in many forms. The most destructive – and, unfortunately, the most common – being when a community, its school district and its students begin to believe that religious expression has no place in the public school environment. That belief is as untrue as it is un-American, and – for a school district – unlawful.

The First Amendment provides public school students expansive protections of their civil liberties. Chief among these are the rights to religious expression and religious exercise.

As one federal court observed, the Constitution “does not permit [a public school] to confine religious speech to whispers or banish it to broom closets. If it did, the exercise of one’s religion would not be free at all.” Yet, that is precisely what many atheists would prefer.

The First Amendment, in fact, prohibits any hostility by a school district – or its employees – toward religious beliefs and expression. The minimum standard for a public school is neutrality toward and accommodation of its students’ religious beliefs. Angry demand letters sent by atheists often intimidate school districts into religious hostility, whereas the law requires schools to uphold the many protections it provides for student religious liberty.

Prayer is no exception. Students can pray during lunch, recess, or other designated free time. Students can pray at graduation ceremonies and include religious content in their speeches. Students can pray, either individually or as a group, at school athletic competitions, student assemblies, or other extracurricular activities when school officials are not involved.

In many cases, contrary to what some angry atheists suggest, a school district can allow student-led prayer before an athletic competition (such as a football game), a student assembly, or other extracurricular event as part of the school program.

Regardless, the parents and students of West Branch schools–and those watching across the nation–need to understand: student religious liberty in the public schools is fully protected by the First Amendment.

Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

Roger Byron is Senior Counsel to First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. Read more at FirstLiberty.org

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