FFRF of Georgia

FFRF decries religious coercion in Mich. school district

Written on 03/14/2019
Lauryn Seering

The Hamilton Community Schools system is engaging in appallingly unconstitutional behavior that is grievously harming its students, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Multiple students and parents have contacted the state/church watchdog to convey how various religious practices at a local high school are causing embarrassment or ostracization.

Hamilton High School regularly holds choir performances in several area churches. The school’s Women’s Chorale and Honors Choir instructor Holly Israels has reportedly integrated students directly into the Sunday worship services at these churches, essentially taking the place of the church’s own gospel choir at a number of events throughout the year. After performing the opening hymns, students are directed to sit in the front row of pews for the duration of the roughly hour-long sermon before singing the closing hymns.

A student complainant conveyed to FFRF extreme discomfort during these sermons, especially when the content strays into “derogatory messages regarding people in the LGBT community.” FFRF’s complainant further reports that Israels “fully participates in all worship activities during the sermon.”

The student has been placed in a no-win situation. “Either we have to sit through these sermons or leave and be ostracized,” the student told FFRF. The student has ended up doing both on different occasions.

“I have felt humiliated,” the student says. “The teacher doesn’t understand the situation I’m in.”

To make matters worse, these performances are for-credit and mandatory, and a choir student who objects to coerced participation in a religious service may lose points off their final grade or face other disciplinary action. FFRF heard from one student who elected to simply drop the class rather than be forced to choose between a good grade or freedom of conscience.

In effect, Hamilton Community Schools has repeatedly compelled choir students into participating in a worship service, FFRF contends.

“Nothing more needs to be proven to establish that the district has violated the First Amendment,” FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara writes to Superintendent David Tebo. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public schools may not compel or coerce students into participating in any religious observance.”

FFRF also notes that Hamilton High School allows a youth pastor to enter the school during the school day. Pastor Scott Davis of Haven Reformed Church has reportedly been seen talking with students during the lunch period “a couple times every week.” Davis does not limit himself to conversing with students who are members of his church, but also sits down with other students and initiates conversation. He has entered classrooms on occasion, as well, asking students in one particular instance if they would go on the “Colorado Challenge,” a youth field trip organized by his church.

It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer pastors unique access to befriend and proselytize students on school property, FFRF reminds Hamilton Community Schools.

“The district cannot allow its schools to be used as recruiting grounds for churches during the school day,” McNamara writes. “It is well settled that the Establishment Clause bars the ‘utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith,’” to quote the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education case.

Allowing church representatives regular, or even one-time, access to proselytize and recruit students for religious activities on school grounds is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Courts have upheld injunctions against schools for their complacency in such situations.

The misbehavior of the school district doesn’t end here. Its Board of Education begins its public meetings with prayer, with school board members reportedly leading these prayers themselves.

Prayer at school board meetings violates the Establishment Clause, FFRF informs school officials. Numerous federal courts of appeal have held that this practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — including the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Michigan. In the most recent case striking down a school board’s prayer practice, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a California lawsuit brought about by FFRF, reaffirmed that school board prayer “implicates the concerns with mimicry and coercive pressure that have led us to ‘be … particularly vigilant in monitoring compliance with the Establishment Clause,’” quoting in part from a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

FFRF has told the school district that it must cease holding school-sponsored performances in churches; it should not allow youth pastors to enter school grounds during the school day; and it must at once stop having prayer at its school board meetings.

“The violations occurring in Hamilton Community Schools are horrendous — and harmful to the student population,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “School officials must come to grips with the fact that they’re serving a public school system, not Christian schools.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 31,000 members across the country, including nearly 800 members in Michigan. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.