Colo. school relents on prayer ban during free time
UPDATE: In response to the news release below, Academy School District #20 issued a statement claiming that “Pine Creek High School has never had, and does not have, a policy in place which restricts students' rights to associate at lunch, and by extension to meet with others and discuss faith, pray, or talk about the news of the day from a Christian perspective at lunch.”
From day one, this case has been focused on the district's decision to not only prevent Chase and other students from praying together during the free time of the seminar period as they had done for the previous three years without incident, but also the district's position that students cannot gather for prayer at any time during the school day. The district's director of legal relations unequivocally made the following statement in response to a letter from ADF: “Mr. Windebank may resume his prayer meetings at Pine Creek High School, but he must do so during non-instructional time, that is before 7:45 a.m. when classes begin, and after 2:45 p.m., when classes end for the day.”
Sadly, rather than allow Chase and the other students to pray during seminar period, the district chose to cancel that period for this coming school year. ADF believes this was an ill-advised decision that strips all students of an important time to build community and engage in discussion on a variety of topics—including religion and prayer, but it is within the prerogative of the district to make that disappointing choice.
What the district cannot do is implement a ban on any student prayer during free time at school. When the district stated in a court filing that Chase “and his fellow students are welcome to sit together in the cafeteria during lunch…to pray and discuss topics of religious interest” (see page 2), it represented a complete reversal of the district’s prior statements banning prayer at any time during the school day. Our goal from the beginning was to ensure that the district respected the freedom that Chase and all other students in the district had to engage in prayer and religious expression during free time. Having achieved our original goal, we dismissed the case.
Attorney sound bite: Matt Sharp
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.”
“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.
- Pronunciation guide: Windebank (WIN’-duh-bank), Tedesco (Tuh-DESS’-koh)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.