Education

Freedom from religion group quashes prayer service at Ocean Springs school

Ocean Springs School District Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter was forced to remove a prayer service from school grounds Tuesday.
Ocean Springs School District Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter was forced to remove a prayer service from school grounds Tuesday.

A freedom from religion advocacy group forced a planned prayer service in Ocean Springs off school grounds Tuesday.

Ocean Springs School District Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter planned on holding a prayer service at Oak Park Elementary School on Tuesday.

However, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national organization committed to separation of state and church, stepped in, sending a cease-and-desist letter to Coleman-Potter.

FFRF said the service violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"It is well settled by the courts that public school employees may not lead, direct or encourage students to engage in prayer," FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Coleman. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal and teacher or school-led prayer in schools."

Coleman-Potter said the service is part of a continuing partnership between the school system and churches. A similar service was held last year.

St. Paul Methodist Church members planned on accepting donations of school supplies for children in need. They also planned on collecting an offering for the Backpack Buddies Program. The program feeds hungry children in Ocean Springs.

The service was moved to First Baptist Church in downtown Ocean Springs. Coleman-Potter did not participate. The Sun Herald has not been able to reach Coleman-Potter for comment.

In a press release, FFRF said the cease-and-desist letter had its intended effect.

"Our public schools exist to educate, not to indoctrinate," says FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. "And it's vital that superintendents not only ensure activities remain secular, but are role models for the district."

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, FFRF 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.”

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory

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