AR Briefly

Southwest Arkansas district asked to stop encouraging Christianity in public schools

By: - May 16, 2023 6:12 pm
At the intersection of State and Church streets in Salem, Oregon. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

A national nonprofit that advocates for the separation of church and state asked a Southwest Arkansas school district on Tuesday to stop distributing Bibles at an elementary school and leading students in prayer, according to a Tuesday news release.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation asked the Prescott School District to “quit imposing Christianity on elementary schoolchildren” in response to two Facebook posts from earlier this month that have since been deleted.

One post included a photo of pre-K students praying before lunch, captioned, “At Prescott, we pray.”

Another post, which circulated on Twitter, showed students reading Bibles they had apparently received at school.

A now-deleted Facebook post from the Prescott School District in southwest Arkansas. (Courtesy: Freedom From Religion Foundation)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has an Arkansas chapter, wrote a letter to Prescott Superintendent Robert Poole on Thursday, asking the district to “immediately cease” its “unconstitutional” actions.

“The First Amendment of the Constitution dictates that public schools may not show favoritism towards or coerce belief or participation in religion,” the foundation’s legal fellow Samantha Lawrence wrote, citing several court cases that set this precedent.

“When a public elementary school’s faculty and staff lead students in prayer, encourage students to pray, and distribute bibles to students, the District displays blatant favoritism towards Christianity and coerces elementary school students to participate in a religious exercise and accept religious literature.”

The district had disabled comments on the posts and “may have deleted any negative comments made by concerned community members,” Lawrence added.

Poole and other district officials did not respond to calls or an email requesting comment Tuesday.

One of the legal rulings Lawrence referenced was Epperson v. Arkansas. The 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared it unconstitutional for the state Legislature to pass a law forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Additionally, in 2009, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that blocked a Missouri school district from distributing Bibles to students. The same court holds jurisdiction over Arkansas.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has repeatedly found overlaps of church and state in Arkansas, according to its website. The foundation was one of several plaintiffs to sue the state for its monument to the Ten Commandments on Capitol grounds, authorized by a 2015 law.

This year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law to create a “monument to the unborn” on Capitol grounds, “commemorating unborn children aborted during the era of Roe v. Wade,” meaning from 1973 to 2022. The Freedom From Religion Foundation denounced this plan as a “monument to ignorance.”

The foundation has also criticized “parents’ bill of rights” legislation that was introduced in multiple states, including Arkansas, this year.

“While appearing to be an innocuous way to strengthen parent involvement in schools, they are a clear attempt to dismantle trust in the public education system and to allow a minority of Christian nationalist extremists to impose their views on other parents and children,” the foundation wrote in April.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.