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Published On: Wed, Jun 10th, 2015

Colorado school reverses ban on student prayer during their ‘free time’

A Colorado school district has dropped its ban on student religious discussion and expression during free time. In light of the change, Alliance Defending Freedom and the district’s attorneys have agreed to end the lawsuit that ADF filed last year on behalf of Pine Creek High School senior Chase Windebank.

School officials had told Windebank in the fall of last year that he and a group of other students could no longer informally meet to pray and discuss religious topics as they had for the previous three years during a free-time period known as the “seminar” home-room period. Officials also stated that such activity could only take place “before 7:45 a.m. when classes begin, and after 2:45 p.m., when classes end for the day.” Now the district has agreed to allow students to engage in prayer and religious discussion during lunchtime, though it simply eliminated the seminar period.

“Public schools should encourage the free exchange of ideas rather than find ways to silence discussion,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “While we commend the school district for recognizing that students have the right to pray and discuss religious topics during lunch, it could have shown greater respect both for the First Amendment freedoms of students and the educational process by simply allowing them to engage in religious conversations during the other free period in the day rather than silence the speech of all students by eliminating that period altogether.”

Praying Hands (Betende Hände) by Albrecht Dürer

Praying Hands (Betende Hände) by Albrecht Dürer

“School districts, of all institutions, should understand that students benefit from the peaceful and thoughtful discussion of ideas,” added ADF Legal Counsel Matt Sharp. “The answer is not to shut down opportunities for those kinds of discussions. While we are pleased that students can once again pray and discuss their faith together during free time at Pine Creek High School, it’s sad that the school district has chosen to limit those discussions – and, in the process, all discussions – by entirely doing away with the ‘seminar’ free period.”

As noted in a document filed with the court May 29, the school district “determined not to include a Seminar period in class schedules next year” but agreed that Windebank “and his fellow students are welcome to sit together in the cafeteria during lunch…to pray and discuss topics of religious interest.”

Academy School District #20 policies and procedures previously defined “open time” in numerous places as consisting of lunchtime and the seminar period, an open period of the day equivalent to recess when students were free to spend time together, text on their phones, or discuss any other topic. Nonetheless, school officials had claimed the “separation of church and state” required the religious speech ban during that period and that students could only engage in religious speech before or after school.

Because of that – and because of the difficulties students had in meeting at those times due to sports, work, or other factors – the number of students participating with Windebank dwindled from approximately 90 students to as low as four while all other students were permitted to continue to meet for nonreligious purposes during the seminar period.

ADF attorneys sent a letter to the school district explaining the unconstitutionality of the school’s policy and practice, but the district responded in its own letter that it stood by the school’s decision. That prompted the lawsuit Windebank v. Academy School District #20, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

 

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