(El Paso, Texas) — In a letter to school officials at Bowie High School, which has come under fire recently for its tradition of having a pastor lead the football team in a pre-game prayer, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, cautioned Bowie’s principal against ending all prayers before football games, particularly student-led prayers. As Whitehead pointed out, although the Establishment Clause limits government-sponsored religious speech, the First Amendment still fully protects student-led religious speech.
“Too often, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is erroneously interpreted to mean freedom from religion, rather than freedom of religion,” said attorney Whitehead. “Those who subscribe to the notion that society should be free from religion tend to use the principle of a separation of church and state as a bludgeon to eradicate religion from the public sphere. On the other side are those, like The Rutherford Institute, who believe that the First Amendment provides for freedom of religion and that the so-called ‘wall of separation between Church and State’—a term coined by Thomas Jefferson—was intended to refer to a wall placed around the church in order to protect it from any government interference with its rights to religious freedom.”
School officials at Bowie High School, which is part of the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD), recently received a threatening letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization claiming “to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church.” The group threatened Bowie with legal action unless the school ceases its practice of having a local pastor lead the football team in a pre-game prayer. The letter was reportedly prompted by a complaint arising over a 2010 YouTube video showing the Bowie High School football team in prayer.
Asked to weigh in on the matter by members of the community, constitutional attorney John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute wrote a letter to Bowie High School’s principal, Dr. Jesus Chavez, explaining that while it is not easy navigating the waters between the First Amendment’s Free Speech/Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, there are still viable options available to those who wish to exercise their First Amendment rights within the schoolhouse gates. In making his case for the legality of student-led prayers, Whitehead pointed to U. S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, as well as guidelines from the Department of Education on “Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” Quoting the Supreme Court’s ruling in Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, Whitehead noted that”nothing in the Constitution prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday.”