PRESCOTT, Ark. (KATV) — An Arkansas public school district recently set off a flood of controversy on social media regarding the long debate of separation of church and state.
In a now-deleted Facebook post from May 4, the Prescott School District shared photos of fifth and sixth grade students reading the Bible and opinions are coming in from around the country.
Another post from the same school district highlighted preschool students praying over their food with teachers in the cafeteria.
Attorney Sammi Lawrence with Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation said they received several complaints from concerned Arkansans about what they were seeing online.
“That the district has distributed Bibles to students in elementary school classes and what was encouraging pre-kindergarten students to pray and that started making the rounds online it seemed," said Lawrence.
Lawrence said it is against the Constitution for anyone working for a public school district to distribute religious content such as the Bible or encourage one religion over another.
“People just really want to be able to send their children to school, especially young children, knowing that teachers and everyone else in the school is going to respect parents' right to determine how they raise their children," she said.
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According to Tom Mars, an attorney at Mars Law Firm in northwest Arkansas said:
With no exceptions, the federal courts have consistently held that the distribution of Bibles in public school classrooms during school hours is unconstitutional because governmental endorsement of any religion violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
With respect to prayer in school, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that while students are free to pray in public schools, prayer that is sponsored or mandated by a public school is unconstitutional. Just last year, however, the Supreme Court departed from previous decisions and ruled that it was permissible for a high school football coach to engage in “private and personal prayer” on the field with his players during a game. That Supreme Court decision in a case called Kennedy v. Bremerton created some uncertainty about where the line is drawn when distinguishing school-sponsored prayer from “private and personal” prayer.
KATV spoke with Prescott Superintendent Robert Poole who said the district releases this statement:
We can not prevent kids from praying. Teachers can pray at any time that they want. Every school district has a policy that has constitutional prayer protected. The bibles in the post were not given out by staff. They were donated from a third party. The bible is also an approved book because it is historic and no one forced the kids to take the bibles or read them.
Lawrence also said teachers and students can choose to pray or read the Bible but they cannot be forced to do those things by a public school district.