Elementary school students in a North Carolina charter school were taught to recite a lunchtime prayer at their publicly-funded school in the western part of the state, a situation that drew concern from at least one parent.
Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, named for the man who coined the concept of a “separation of church and state” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, adopted a policy on Monday disallowing teacher-led prayer at the school, a month after Stephanie Morris brought her concerns about classroom prayer to school officials.
“Students are free to pray on their own … but a teacher cannot facilitate or lead that,” said Ted Bell, a Thomas Jefferson board member and District Attorney-elect for Rutherford and McDowell counties.
A state law passed last year and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory specifies that student-led prayers are allowed in public schools as long as it does not disrupt school instructing or infringe on the religious freedoms of others.
Morris said she was shocked and upset when her second-grade daughter came home from Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy’s grammar school in Forest City repeating a prayer she learned to say before lunchtime in class.
Thank you God for our food, the rain and sunny weather,
thank you God for our friends and that we are together.
Previously, the teacher in her daughter’s class had included pamphlets and brochures from a local church in hand-outs that were brought home, but Morris said she discarded those without bringing up her objections.
The classroom prayer veered too much into religious instruction for Morris, who asked the school principal if a moment of silence could be used instead.
“It’s innocent enough, if you’re a Christian,” Morris said. “But there are children that go to that school that are not Christian or are not religious.”
Before Monday’s action by the Thomas Jefferson school board (click here to read the new policy), a month went by before the school officials acted on Morris’ complaint, and only after the national Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to the school on her behalf.
During that time, the prayers continued to be led or referenced by the teacher and Morris said her daughter was teased by other students over religion.
Morris’ daughter has also struggled with the conflicting messages she’s receiving from her home and school.
“She should never be put in the position when she has to question whether her parent or her teacher is right,” Morris said.
Morris has since asked that her daughter be switched to another classroom. She said she was surprised the prayer issue was not immediately addressed, given Thomas Jefferson’s prominent role in establishing barriers between religious and government functions.
“Are they not aware of the man whose name is on their building?,” she said.
An attorney with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Patrick Elliot, wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson school officials in early November reminding the school of its Constitutional responsibiities to keep religion separate from public schools.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation frequently receives complaints and questions from across the country about the role that religion has in charter schools, which are funded through public education dollars but often run by private non-profit boards.
Charter schools have to adhere to the same rules about providing sectarian education as traditional public schools, Elliot said.
“As a public school, even as a charter school, it has to abide by state-church separation,” said Elliot, who has not received a response from the school.
This is also not the first time religion has been intertwined with Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy. N.C. Policy Watch published an investigation into the school in 2011 that found the school, part of an out-of-state network of charter schools led by a prominent conservative group, hosted a diaper drive for a local anti-abortion religious ministry.
The recent situation over prayer in the classroom sparked an intense debate in Rutherford County, and Monday’s school board meeting was preceded by a prayer circle from some who wanted to allow more religious activities in the public school, according to this article from the Daily Courier, a Forest City news publication.
“If you deny these children the right to pray, you will stand in front of Jesus and he will deny you,” Donald Owens told the board during Monday’s meeting, according to the Daily Courier.
Mode, the teacher who led to the prayer, apologized at the board meeting for leading prayers in her classroom. She also said she thinks many teachers would like to, if asked by students, share their religious beliefs with their pupils.
“I want to apologize not for the stand I took, but for the trouble you guys (the TJCA board) had to go through,” Mode said, according to the Daily Courier. She added, “I will not lead prayer in the classroom, but I will not stop the children from praying.”
Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected].