Education

Group tells Biloxi schools to stop promoting religious events

Biloxi High School
Biloxi High School jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com FILE

A freedom from religion advocacy group has contacted a second South Mississippi school in less than three months with a stern message: School officials must know what they can and can’t do regarding religion in school.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national organization committed to separation of state and church, contacted the Biloxi School District on Wednesday to say it is illegal for school officials to participate in or promote religious events at school.

In a letter to Superintendent Arthur McMillan, the foundation’s attorney Sam Grover said a concerned community member said administrators at both Biloxi Junior High and Biloxi High School have been promoting religious events on the schools’ public address system.

“We write to ensure the District staff do not promote religious events to their students in the future and that the District ensures that its employees are not actively participating in religious clubs at school.”

The foundation said it is a violation of the Constitution for district officials to plan, promote or engage in religious activities on school grounds.

According to the letter, the community member told the foundation there was a broadcast announcement reminding students to participate in a See You at the Pole prayer rally on school property.

See You at the Pole is a Christian gathering organized each year around a Bible verse. Though the rally is popular at schools across the country, it is unconstitutional for school employees to participate.

“When school employees actively participate in religious events with their students, they unconstitutionally entangle the school with a religious message, in this case an exclusively Christian message,” Grover wrote.

The foundation also referred to Biloxi Junior High Principal Scott Powell in the email, who allegedly announced over the loudspeaker Oct. 4 and 5 that students “shouldn’t forget to bring their Bibles to school on Oct. 6 for Bring Your Bible to School Day,” which the foundation says is a privately organized, non-school religious event.

The letter and email to the Biloxi School District follows the foundation’s earlier effort to nix a prayer service at a school in Ocean Springs School District. In that instance, an attorney with the foundation sent a cease-and-desist letter to superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter explaining the planned prayer service at Oak Park Elementary School violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Coleman-Potter moved the prayer service to an area church.

The foundation’s purpose, according to its website, is “to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to non-theism.”

According to its website, its attorneys “act on countless violations of separation of state and church on behalf of members and the public including: Prayers in public schools, payment of funds for religious purposes, government funding of pervasively sectarian institutions, and the ongoing campaign against civil rights for women, gays and lesbians led by churches.”

The foundation has requested a written response from the Biloxi School District.

“We request that the District investigate the situations described above and take action to ensure that its employees understand and respect their constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion while acting in their official capacities .... Please respond in writing with the steps taken to ensure that these violations do not recur so that we may notify our complainant.”

Jennifer Pyron, the district’s public relations director, said district officials are gathering information.

“We've just received the letter from the FFRF,” she said. “As always, we strive to provide a safe and welcoming atmosphere for our students and staff. We intend to make sure that we are compliant with all current laws and statutes.”

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