After ending daily prayers over the intercom, an Oklahoma public school may restart them
Ryan Walters, the Christian Nationalist who oversees OK schools, may have convinced Prague Public Schools to break the law again
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There’s no question that reciting Christian prayers over the loudspeaker at a public school is blatantly illegal. There are decades of legal precedent calling school-sponsored prayers an illegal endorsement of religion that violates the First Amendment.
And yet Prague Elementary School in Oklahoma not only allowed daily prayers to be recited during morning announcements, they let students do the deed, then promoted those kids on social media, as if the children had done a public service and deserved to be praised for it. (It should go without saying that non-Christian students didn’t receive the same opportunity, much less the school-backed celebration.)
They may have felt this was all acceptable because the kids requested the chance to pray—it’s not like the administrators asked them to do it. But the only reason children would make that kind of request is because the school made it clear that praying to Jesus over the intercom was okay. That’s still school-sponsored prayer.
Those posts were cited in a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the Prague Public Schools earlier this month in an effort to stop the practice before a lawsuit forced the district’s hand.
Attorney Chris Line wrote:
It is extremely concerning that the District not only hosts daily prayers as part of “Rise and Shine,” but that it then posts the full name and photos of students who led the prayer so that they can receive accolades from the community for adhering to the majoritarian religious belief. The District must cease hosting daily prayers and promoting religious worship through its official communication channels immediately.
… Even when student-initiated, which this daily practice is most certainly not given the age of the students and the District’s active participation in organizing and promoting it, the Supreme Court has found school sponsorship of prayers unconstitutional.
A public school must not host official daily prayers even if it is students delivering these prayers. The Constitution obligates public schools to maintain religious neutrality to respect the right of conscience of its students and their families…
This was such an obvious call that the district immediately relented.
Attorney Justin Cliburn responded on Nov. 17 by saying, “The district agrees that the posts and prayer are inappropriate for a public school district.” He promised to stop the practice and delete all the earlier social media posts.
That should have been the end of the issue.
But this is Oklahoma… where the Superintendent of Public Instruction is Ryan Walters, a proud Christian Nationalist.
As I’ve written before, Walters has been a driving force in getting state officials to approve the nation’s first religious charter school, St. Isidore of Seville Virtual Catholic Charter School—a move that has already resulted in a major lawsuit. He approved the use of PragerU materials in public school classrooms. He claimed the Tulsa Race Massacre had nothing to do with race. He’s falsely insisted that President Joe Biden “wants to destroy our Christian faith.” He formed a faith committee to examine prayer in public schools; the committee, full of conservative Christian pastors, then recommended putting the Ten Commandments in every classroom.
He has even sent out a “sample prayer” for teachers to use for the people of Israel (and definitely not the innocent people living in the Gaza Strip).
On Tuesday, in response to the news that Prague Elementary would no longer allow kids to pray over the public address system, Walters posted a video insisting that “people of faith will never be bullied.” As if reminding government officials of how the law works is an act of Christian persecution.
Today, we see Prague Public Schools backing down to a radical atheist group.
You know, we're gonna continue to fight for religious liberty and religious freedom here in the state of Oklahoma. What we've seen is a group that's funded by George Soros, that is atheist, that is from out of state, has come in and targeted children that are initiating prayer in Prague Public Schools. But just as bad, we have Prague Public Schools bowing down to these bullies and telling their students that they're not going to allow them to initiate prayer anymore. It's outrageous.
We have to take a stand for our students, freedom of religion, their freedom to express their religious beliefs, no matter what those religious beliefs may be.
So what we've got to do is we've got to tell groups like the Freedom From Religion group, like the ACLU, “We will never back down to your bullying antics. We will not allow atheism to be the state-sponsored religion of our school system. Not here in Oklahoma. You guys need to leave our kids alone. We will not stand for it. And we will continue to fight for religious liberty here in the state of Oklahoma.”
FFRF is not funded by Soros. The fact that FFRF is based out of state is irrelevant because—wait for it—the Constitution applies to the entire country. (And, as FFRF noted, they were acting on behalf of a “concerned District community member.”) FFRF wasn’t targeting kids; they were protecting the adults from a costly legal battle that the district would have inevitably lost. If anyone was messing with children, it was the adults at this school, using kids to advance their preferred religion.
To be clear, students still have the freedom to express their religious views. They have always had that right. They just can’t hold other students captive when they do it. For the same reason children of Christian parents shouldn’t have to listen to Islamic prayers over the intercom each morning, no one else should be forced to listen to Jesus nonsense either. And administrators sure as hell shouldn’t be promoting any of it.
Calling for religious neutrality, as FFRF did, is not “state-sponsored” atheism any more than a soccer game during gym class that doesn’t begin with prayer. Notice that FFRF didn’t demand kids be told not to believe in a god. They just said the district couldn’t promote Christianity, which is what the law says.
Walters lives in a Christian bubble where government neutrality on religion is treated as de facto atheism. He treats neutrality as persecution because he fantasizes about living in a Christian theocracy.
All that said, the video has no bite. It’s self-promotion more than anything. A way for Walters to signal to his conservative Christian base that he works for them and no one else. There’s no indication he’s using his office or his resources to actually push back against FFRF, because even he has to know this is a losing battle.
He probably just assumes that his MAGA base is too dumb to realize that.
Since that video was posted, though, there have been two interesting developments.
The first is predictable: FFRF responded with an open letter calling on Walters to resign:
… you have once again set out to interfere with and target school districts that do the right thing and end such constitutional violations. You deliberately stir up divisiveness and acrimony against them and flout your constitutional duties. As we have noted in past letters, it is plain that you are concerned only with advancing a Christian nationalist agenda that is antithetical to American values, rather than performing the duties of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. You are manifestly unfit to continue to serve in this role.
Your disregard for your constitutional duties and your flagrant political posturing are a disgrace to your office, and we once again renew our call for you to resign immediately.
FFRF also responded to the false claim that they’re funded by Soros: “We wish that were true. Clearly, you are invoking Soros’ name as an anti-Semitic trope and conspiratorial dog whistle aimed at your radical followers. For shame.”
The second is more bizarre.
The Prague Public Schools issued a public statement (on Facebook) retracting their own lawyer’s apology:
A recent media report refers to a complaint received by Prague Schools from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Madison, Wisconsin based non-profit organization and a letter of response to that complaint which was received by that organization. The complaint raised by FFRF was fully investigated by the school district with guidance from the Oklahoma State Department of Education website, the district's legal counsel and consultation with members of the local ministerial alliance. During this process, a staff attorney with the district's legal counsel drafted a proposed response to FFRF and presented the proposed draft to the district's administration and school board. The response was deemed by the district's leadership to be an inappropriate response to the FFRF complaint and direction was given to the district's legal counsel not to release the response. Unfortunately, the response was released, contrary to the district's direction, to FFRF. The purpose of this release is to clarify that not only was the release of the response not authorized by any member of the district's leadership, the content of the response was deemed by the district's administration to be unacceptable.
Prague is a community and school district that is committed to recognizing and honoring the freedoms of all staff and students while cherishing its rich history and even more promising future. The leadership of Prague Schools is dedicated to following the law and protecting the rights of every student to freely exercise his or her religion.
What the hell does that mean?! A lawyer for the district wrote a response assuring FFRF the district would obey the law… but the district’s leadership found it to be “inappropriate”… but the letter was sent out anyway?!
Why was the letter inappropriate? We’re not told.
Why do district leaders think they’re better equipped to understand the law than their own staff attorney? We’re not told.
Will the district continue to ignore the law and push Christian prayers over the intercom? We’re not told… but they sure seem to be implying a move in that direction.
It seems entirely possible that Ryan Walters’ posturing convinced people in the district that they could fight this—and that forced prayers in public schools are a battle worth fighting.
That would be an idiotic move made by very ignorant board members who care more about advancing Christian Nationalism than helping students… In other words, the sort of people who make up Walters’ base.
Chris Line, the FFRF attorney who sent the initial letter, told me he was concerned about this apparent reversal:
FFRF is concerned that the district seems to be walking back it’s very reasonable and objectively true response that this prayer practice is not permissible in a public school district and it’s assurance this won’t happen again in the future. While students do have the right to pray in school, a public school district cannot host official daily prayers broadcast over the loudspeaker during the school day. This is clearly established law. FFRF hopes the District will follow the law and cease violating the rights of its students as the response indicated it would.
This won’t end well for the students in that district. They deserve to be led by smarter people than the sort who would take Walters seriously.
(Portions of this article were published earlier because Ryan Walters pulls this shit all the time.)