The Patriot-News recently published an article discussing non-believers – Ernest Perce, Carl Silverman and Mikki Weidman — who protested a “See You At The Pole” event at East Hanover Elementary School in which students gathered to pray. The article briefly mentions complaints that were voiced regarding this particular event, but it does not delve into great detail concerning the legal problems associated with the event.
One of the main peculiar problems associated with this prayer event is that students were given a flier in their classrooms that was authored by a parent (not a student) which indcluded an opt-out form that was to be returned to teachers if parents did not wish for their students to attend the event.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a group whose purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, has sent a letter to the attorney representing the Northern Lebanon School District noting that the prayer event would take place during school time (the flier noted that the event would start at 8:50AM, the same time school starts). The FFRF letter notes “Public schools cannot host religious events during instruction time.”
The FFRF letter also states, “The flier that went home with students indicates direct school endorsement. […] This is school coordination and involvement in a devotional event. It gives the clear impression to students and their families that the school promotes and endorses the prayer event.” Most “See You At The Pole” events take place outside of school hours and without endorsement from schools, but this case is quite different because the event (as noted by the flier) would occur during school hours and was promoted via fliers distributed to students that included an opt-out form that was to be returned to teachers.
The letter continues, “It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion. […] Given the location, the timing and the promotional materials, a reasonable observer will perceive See you at the Pole as being “stamped with her school’s seal of approval.” […] Allowing outside adults with a religious mission access to the student body gives the appearance that East Hanover Elementary endorses the program’s message.”
While the article is limited because of space restrictions, this vital information would have been very beneficial for the audience to understand the legal issues involved.
The Patriot-News noted that the “event began about 8:40 a.m. as school buses were arriving, and was over at 8:50 a.m.” The flier, though, noted that the event was at 8:50 a.m. and, as The Patriot-News indicated, was taking place as school buses were arriving. Regardless of the starting and ending time of the event, the event is still plagued with other problems – namely the flier that was distributed in schools with the opt-out portion that was to be returned to teachers. Additional commentary can be found on PA Nonbelievers’ website.