A Texas school district’s effort to usher in the new academic year with a series of voluntary prayer sessions faced an unexpected interruption. Burnet Consolidated Independent School District, intending to begin the school year on a note of faith and unity, drew the ire of an out-of-state secular group.
A now-deleted Facebook post from the district had invited the community to join a “pray to the first day” initiative, commencing July 26 and set to culminate on August 16, the first day of school. Participants ranged from school staff, administrators, parents, and guardians, each designated a day to engage in prayer.
Texas school district cancels prayer event, caving to pressure from out-of-state group
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation appears to have successfully pressured the Burnet Consolidated Independent School District
— Tim Gradous (@tgradous) August 8, 2023
However, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, swiftly caught wind of the endeavor. Samantha F. Lawrence, the FFRF’s Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow, penned a letter to Burnet CISD Superintendent Keith McBurnett, urging the district to “cease promoting prayer and remove this post from its official social media.”
Lawrence’s letter stressed that by championing prayer, the district exuded “clear favoritism toward religion over nonreligion.” She emphasized the diverse fabric of the school community, which comprises not just believers but also atheists, agnostics, and the religiously unaffiliated. For the district to rally behind a prayer initiative, Lawrence contended, was to risk alienating a significant portion of its population.
In a quick pivot to appease FFRF, Superintendent McBurnett confirmed the removal of the Facebook post. A response to the FFRF further assured them of the district’s commitment to not promote similar events in the future.
However, this wasn’t the first time prayer around educational settings sparked a nationwide debate. In 2022, a groundbreaking Supreme Court decision favored a Washington high school football coach’s right to engage in post-game prayers on the field. Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic — whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head.”
The sudden halt of the Burnet CISD’s prayer initiative inevitably raises the question of how public entities can acknowledge and honor the faiths of all without stepping on constitutional lines. Even as this Texas school district grapples with its decision and implications, the broader debate about the interplay of faith and education in America is far from settled.