ST. LOUIS — A federal judge in St. Louis has ordered a southeast Missouri school district to end school-initiated or sponsored prayer and other religious activities.
In his Aug. 30 injunction, U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey also ordered the Doniphan R-I School District to abide by its policy recognizing separation of church and state and forbidding the espousal of religious faith.
Autrey wrote that his ruling does not limit the right of "any student at his or her own initiative from voluntarily praying in a nondisruptive, noncoercive fashion during noninstructional time.
"Nor shall the foregoing limit the right of any individual employee of the district to pray privately, so long as students are not included in or exposed to the prayer, or in any way limit the activities of any employee outside the scope of his or her employment with the district."
Autrey said the order was based on a negotiated settlement and was not an "admission of liability by any party."
The ruling came in response to a federal lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri filed in July on behalf of a woman and her two children who attend Doniphan Elementary School. The lawsuit centered on mandatory school assemblies in May that began with teacher-led prayer.
The family is not Christian, but others who offered to be witnesses in the case are Christian, ACLU legal director Anthony Rothert said.
Some readers of a local newspaper made "hostile comments" about the family, with one suggesting the family move to Cuba, Rothert said.
The Christian prayer sessions, complete with instructions to the children to bow their heads and pray, were videotaped by parents and shared with the ACLU, Rothert said.
Prior to the lawsuit being filed, the ACLU said, the district offered to have the prayers led by a student selected by administrators.
"They just didn't get it," Rothert said. "Parents, not principals, get to choose whether their children are exposed to religious activity. It's not the job of public schools to proselytize."
Once the lawsuit was filed, attorneys for the two sides reached a compromise.
Rothert said various parents who spoke to the ACLU said that teacher-led prayer had been a part of school activities in Doniphan "for as long as anyone can remember."
ACLU Executive Director Brenda Jones said the Doniphan schools faculty and administration were openly violating the Bill of Rights. "That is not a good example to set for students," she said in a written statement.
The school district did not return phone calls in time for this story.
The school district is in Doniphan, the Ripley County seat, with a population of 1,932. Doniphan is located in the Ozark foothills, southwest of Poplar Bluff.