A prayer on school property, during school hours, involving school students has been deemed unconstitutional.
KNWA and FOX24 obtained a video that was taken at Cooper Elementary School during a ribbon cutting ceremony for its new fitness trail on Friday, February 19. The event was co-sponsored by Mercy Health and General Mills. In the video, you can hear the speaker from Mercy ask students and others in attendance to raise their hands to participate in the prayer blessing. Afterward, a nun sprinkled holy water over the site.
A concerned parent spoke to us away from camera about the prayer, but wished to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation.
“I think because the majority of children in our school district are probably Christian, that this may not be as big a deal for some parents,” the parent questioned. “I would ask those parents to consider, what if this had been a non-Christian prayer? How would they feel then if it had been someone from a different religion that was asking their children to raise their hands to Allah or Krishna or Thor or anyone else?”
Based on separation of church and state and several Supreme Court rulings, it is against the law for any school-sponsored event to include religious activities even if it is outside of the typical school environment.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation got its hands on the video and says the actions were clearly unconstitutional. In a letter, the foundation requests that Bentonville Public Schools “discontinue prayer at future school-sponsored activities.” It went on to request the district inform the foundation in writing of the steps it will be taking to correct the violation.
In an email to KNWA and FOX24, the staff attorney for the foundation also said once it receives a response from the district, it will decide if further action is needed. They also said that if Bentonville Public Schools does not take action, any parent could challenge the district in court.
The Director of Communications for Bentonville Public Schools, Paul Stolt, released a statement:
“The ribbon-cutting event central to Freedom From Religion Foundation’s complaint was not a school-sponsored event. We thank our community partners Mercy Health and General Mills for supporting students in Bentonville Public Schools and our community by providing this new resource for health and fitness. The Land of Healthiness Fitness Trail, generously constructed with the support of the General Mills Foundation is located on Bentonville School property dedicated for this use. We appreciate Mercy Health for planning, publicizing and hosting the dedication event for the Fitness Trail and look forward to partnering with them in the future on other projects that benefit not only our students, but also our community. While some district staff, faculty and students attended the dedication, Bentonville Public Schools did not schedule, create an agenda, nor preview the remarks of any speaker prior to the event.”
After KNWA questioned their reasoning as to how it was not a school sponsored event if it involved school students, staff and administrators on school grounds during school hours, Stolt said the district maintains it was an event sponsored by Mercy Health. He also said they are now considering reviewing all event agendas in the future.
We also reached out to Mercy Health and a representative said they did sponsor the event and per Mercy tradition, they held a prayer blessing.