The Van Alstyne ISD Board of Trustees met in a special called session on Friday, Oct. 4, to discuss the issue of prayer at school functions. The meeting was in response to a letter the district received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation of Madison, Wis., which stated a student complaint brought the district to the group’s attention.
According to VAISD Superintendent Dr. John Spies, the letter received by the district stated that a student complained that a coach or announcer had led a Christian prayer at the Van Alstyne Panthers’ Sept. 20 home varsity football game. The letter went on to state that it was illegal to do so, even if the prayer was led by a student.
The problem is, the foundation is wrong on both counts.
First, the prayer that night was student-led. At the beginning of the first semester each year, an announcement is made that students can enter their names to be drawn at random to speak prior to a school function. The names are all drawn before the events begin, and so it was on Sept. 20 that a student spoke prior to the game.
The second mistake is that, technically, it is legal for a student in Texas to express their religious viewpoint at school events. Texas Education Code Section 25.152 was passed to “ensure that the school district does not discriminate against a student’s publicly stated voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, and to eliminate any actual or perceived affirmative school sponsorship or attribution to the district of a student’s expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, a school district shall adopt a policy, which must include the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak.” The policy goes on to lay out the limited terms of this public expression of religious viewpoints at school functions, including the neutral criteria for selecting speakers.
With this in mind, the board voted unanimously, 7-0, to enact FNA local policy Student Rights and Responsibilities/Student Expression, laying out how the district “shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the District treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and shall not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.”
Basically, the policy creates a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak. These include: varsity athletic events, pep rallies, award ceremonies/banquets, graduation ceremonies, school dances and school-sponsored social events and fine arts performances. Students are allowed to speak only so long as they are not obscene, vulgar or lewd and indecent in their speech.
“It has to be done in a very specific way, ann we have to make sure we’re not discriminating against the rights of other students,” stated Spies. “I’m glad that we have a policy in place and we can continue our long-standing tradition of students being able to express their views at football games.”
Several school districts have received this letter with the same type of wording leading one to question whether or not it is a form letter being sent out as opposed to one addressing district-specific complaints.