Just before the start of the 2023-2024 school year, officials in the West Shore School District (near Harrisburg) sent a letter to Booster Club presidents ordering them to “halt prayers at future banquets, and at any other school-sponsored activity.” The letter also stated it didn’t matter if “a high-school student offers the prayers because student-initiated prayers at school events are illegal.”
Not true, but yes, the letter actually said that! In reality, it was the school’s directive that was illegal.
Three different people called our Independence Law Center about the school’s letter, seeking advice and help. And help we did.
Independence Law Center and our friends at First Liberty Institute quickly drafted and sent a letter to district officials asking them to immediately rescind their unconstitutional directive. What’s more, our legal team offered to help the school officials draft a new letter and craft policies to ensure the district would not illegally discriminate against students and staff in the future.
We explained in our letter that the First Amendment prohibits a school district from acting in a hostile manner toward religious belief. But – evidenced by the school’s letter – that’s exactly what the district was doing, treating prayer as if it were dangerous asbestos to be remediated and removed from all school sponsored events. This approach runs headfirst into violations of the free speech and religious free exercise rights of students and employees alike.
We further explained student-initiated prayer at school-sponsored events is permitted in many circumstances. In fact, as the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District makes clear, even school employees have the freedom to pray at times, regardless of whether they are at a school-sponsored event. There is an important distinction between school speech and individuals’ speech, and public schools may not trample free speech and religious free-exercise rights of students or teachers.
In less than 24 hours, the school district responded to us favorably, and reversed its position! Officials sent a letter revoking the previous unconstitutional directive and said they would revise their communications to make sure they’re compliant with federal law and in accordance with the Constitution.
We commend the West Shore School District for quickly reversing course. Officials did the right thing by ensuring students, administrators, coaches, and teachers are free to live out their faith. Other districts around Pennsylvania and our nation should follow their example.
As we celebrate this win, we thank our friends at First Liberty for again joining to fight alongside us, as they did in our recent Supreme Court victory for religious freedom in Gerald Groff’s US Postal Service case.
Your support of the Independence Law Center is a big part in helping to deliver these day-to-day victories, which make a tremendous difference for everyday Americans, including our school children. Thank you!