Leadership from the Polk School District met with several members of the community in the past days to make sure they fully understand recent reports and ease concerns over issues regarding religion and prayer in school activities in response to requests from a secular organization.
The district reported in a release that it had held an impromptu luncheon with local clergy, community members, and parents to explain correspondence with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and assure them that they are still valued members of the education community.
The release stated that “the luncheon focused on the current needs of our community, students and families alike, and how Polk School District can continue to partner with our stakeholders to meet those needs.”
Polk School District officials joined with Superintendent Laurie Atkins in explaining that the District received complaints from the FFRF after they began asking for open records in March. They sent and later published a letter specifically over a team chaplain position and school-sponsored prayer within the Polk School District.
Officials provided “the district’s understanding of the constitutional laws separating church and state and the actions for staff and students that are allowable moving forward” to those in attendance at the recent session held on July 8.
Atkins stated in the release that ultimately it is the goal of the district to “always put the well-being of our students as a first priority. This situation is no different. We will continue to work with our local community to do what is best for our greatest asset — our children.”
Found within the district’s handbooks for students and teachers alike, the school district’s policy provides guidelines on what religious expression is allowed and what isn’t, based on decades of rulings from the United States Supreme Court.
Students can pray individually or together outside of school activities or classroom time and so long as it doesn’t disrupt regular order. Students can read Bibles or other scriptures, say a prayer before breakfast or lunch in the cafeteria, and even study and talk about religion during lunch, or recess, or before or after school times.
Prayer groups, religious clubs like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and clearly labeled as “see you at the pole” gatherings can also be organized, with equal opportunities for any club available.
Educators also aren’t allowed to discriminate against student groups who meet to pray in advertising events within the school as well.
Regarding school employees and volunteers, the Establishment Clause prevents them from explicitly being for or against prayer, or from actively participating in those activities with students. It doesn’t prevent teachers and staff from being at a prayer event outside of being an educator, but they aren’t allowed to lead students in prayer.
Like students, educators can also take part in prayer groups or Bible study in the same extent they would engage in other activities outside of teaching time with students.
Schools often utilize a moment of silence before students recite the pledge of allegiance and get on with daily activities, but how they use that silent time is up to them so long as they remain respectful of others.
Additional rules in the policy address everything from how to handle students being excused for off-campus religious practices and more.
In the release on the luncheon officials and clergy reported that it ended on a positive note with “everyone present having a better understanding of the totality of the situation and a reminder of the strength of the Polk County community when we all work together.”