California school district backs off flagpole prayer ban

Free Speech
by Kiley Crossland
Posted 9/28/13, 10:15 am

A California school district attempted to stop its teachers from attending the “See You at the Pole” (SYATP) student-led prayer gathering this week, initially claiming the teachers’s attendance would be unconstitutional before reversing its decision the day before the event.

SYATP, a grassroots gathering that began in 1990, happens annually on the fourth Wednesday in September. Students gather at their school’s flagpole at 7 a.m., before classes starts, to pray for their friends, school, city, government, and nation. Organizers estimate 3 million students in 20 countries participate annually in the event. SYATP’s website gives students information on the legal rights they have to organize, advertise, and attend.

A week before this year’s event, Bakersfield School District sent out an advisory memo to all of the district’s principals affirming students’ rights to organize and attend the SYATP event but banning teachers from joining them. The memo claimed the U.S. Constitution “prohibits the school from sponsoring religious activities among children” and “district employees would, for example, be sponsoring religion by praying with students even if that praying occurred before or after school (e.g., praying at the flag pole before school).”

An elementary school teacher sent the letter to the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), concerned the district was taking a position that restricted free speech. On Sept. 23, PJI staff attorney Matt McReynolds sent district officials a letter asking them to retract the bulletin. He said PJI fundamentally disagreed with the district’s stance on teacher attendance at the SYATP event: “We believe teachers have First Amendment rights when they are not on the clock and not in the classroom.”

In the letter, PJI promised to represent any teacher who experienced backlash for attending the event, and if the district chose to uphold teachers’ First Amendment rights, PJI would represent the district against any legal challenges it received.

“Teachers are natural community leaders and civic participants,” McReynolds said. “If anything, we should be encouraging and not censoring active, engaged citizens who simply want the best for their communities and schools.”

The day before the scheduled event, Dr. Tim Fulenwider, the director of the district’s Instructional Support Services Division and the man who approved the advisory memo sent four days earlier, sent an email reversing the memo’s earlier conclusion. He noted that a question had been raised concerning teacher participation and that “the Bakersfield City School District respects students' and employees' First Amendment rights. To clarify, while this event is not sponsored by the School District, students, staff and members of the public may attend this before-school event.”

McReynolds said, as far as he knows, teachers in the Bakersfield School District were able to participate without incident in Wednesday’s event. 

Kiley Crossland

Kiley is a former WORLD correspondent.

Read more from this writer