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Florida principal touts school prayer event, irking secularists

October 21, 2011 |  8:19 am


Did a Jacksonville, Fla., public school principal cross the line into state sponsorship of religion when he promoted a weekly on campus school prayer session, and assert that the "1st Amendment was for Christianity, not other religions"?

That question is at the heart of a constitutional controversy at Clay Hill Elementary School, where principal Larry Davis touted the prayer meetings in a newsletter to his staff last month., the Florida Times-Union reports.

In the newsletter, Davis noted that the weekly prayer sessions around the flagpole were sponsored by "area Pastors." He also quoted a pastor named Steven Andrew, who has called for bringing back "the Holy Bible and Christian prayer at schools."

"Our prayer around the flagpole gatherings are permissible because they are community led and take place outside class time," Davis wrote.

The newsletter alarmed the Freedom from Religion Foundation -- the Wisconsin-based national organization of "atheists, agnostics and skeptics of any pedigree" -- who have called the memo item an "unusually egregious violation of state/church separation."

In general, federal courts have allowed prayer in school as long as it is not sponsored by the state -- an attempt to balance the 1st Amendment's "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses.

In a statement, Stephanie Schmitt, an attorney for the Freedom from Religion group, argued that the principal had veered into promotion, using the word "our" to describe the event, and giving it an "unabashed" shout-out in a school newsletter.

The group has sent a letter to the school district calling for an end to the prayer sessions, the Times-Union reported.

Davis, the principal, told the paper that he didn't actually believe that the 1st Amendment only applies to non-Christians. (He appears to argue that he was quoting from the pastor, although it is not abundantly clear from his punctuation where his quoting begins and ends; see the original here).

The superintendent of schools issued a "no comment" on the matter to Times-Union reporter Topher Sanders.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has made a splash in the Bible Belt recently with billboards promoting a religion-free lifestyle, with messages like "Praise Darwin -- Evolve Beyond Religion," and the holiday-themed "Heathen's Greetings."

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-- Richard Fausset

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