Protests rage over prayer in school


Jillian Rodriguez

Oak Grove Middle school was the center of a protest earlier this week. Parents lined up outside with signs for and against a prayer request board in a classroom. Jillian Rodriguez / Student Printz

The debate over school prayer came to Oak Grove Middle School after a teacher posted a prayer board in the back of her classroom in August. Eighth grade teacher Randi Rogers confronted a student, who felt intimidated by the word “prayer,” after the student snapped a picture of the board with a cellphone.

Shortly after the incident, the American Humanist Association wrote a letter threatening to take the school to court if the board was not removed.

“Ms. Rogers said that even if the word ‘prayer’ was illegal, she would continue to write names on the board of those for whom she would be praying,” the letter said.

It also accused Rogers of being aggressive toward the student for disrespecting her religion.

“Ms. Rogers said that if the student didn’t like it he could move to another part of the classroom,” the letter continued.

Mississippi College School of Law professor Matt Steffey confirmed that the board violated separation of church and state.

“The board and the teacher’s response to the student are almost certainly unlawful,” Steffey said. “I think the reason why courts generally frown upon activities of this kind is because it sends a message to the students who do not share the teacher’s religious perspective that they may not be treated as warmly inside the classroom.”

Despite the controversy the prayer board has provoked, Lamar County Superintendent Tess Smith mediated by saying the teacher’s actions were not intended to be offensive. Smith wanted it to be known that religion was not being forced upon students. Instead, the students were the ones who sought out prayer.

“I think what has occurred over time is that students would ask her for prayer and she thought the best way to handle the situation without infringing on her class time was to put up a board in the back of the classroom where students could write the names of people they wanted her to pray for. There was no open prayer going on. That was not part of it. If students wished to participate, they could.”- Smith

Smith assured that whether or not it was coercive, the board has since been removed.

Some parents have been actively supportive of Randi Rogers and her prayer board. Protesters gathered outside of Oak Grove Middle School with hand-written posters to demonstrate their approval of Rogers. One protester, Mike Woodard, felt that the rights of Christians were being challenged.

“We should have the right,” Woodard said. “That’s what this country was founded on— Christian beliefs—and we should have the right to pray if we want to and offer it. If they don’t want to participate, then that’s their choice. But they don’t need to be able to take away my choice from me.”

WDAM polled 900 adults in the area on whether or not they would be okay with a prayer board in their child’s classroom. About 91.5 percent said they had no problem with a teacher offering prayer, while 8.5 percent were not okay with the religious exposure.

According to the group’s website, the American Humanist Association advocates for a society where goodness without a god is an accepted and respected way to live life.

The humanist group’s attorney Monica Miller made a statement about the Oak Grove case after the board was removed.

“This is a victory for the First Amendment and ensures that teachers in the district will not endorse prayer or religion in their official capacities,” Miller said.