Saturday afternoon, HISD Trustee Wanda Adams will host a “Back To School Prayer Festival” with local churches, religious leaders, and contemporary Christian radio station KSBJ.
According to an email blast Adams sent out to her constituents and supporters this week, the prayer rally will meet at the south-side Greater Grace Outreach Church. The faithful will then fan out to all the schools in HISD's District 9 to pray for each campus.
Whether any of this presents a church-state separation problem depends on number of different factors, says Dan Quinn with the Texas Freedom Network, a civil liberties group that often fights against religious encroachment into public schools. For instance, Quinn says, it would be troubling if Adams, in her role as a public official, used school resources or required district employees or students to attend her prayer rally. Adams didn't use her district email address to send out notice of the prayer rally, which was instead blasted out through her Constant Contact account.
“[I]f the event isn't in any other way an HISD event, then I don't think there's a legal or constitutional issue here,” Quinn said by email, adding, “she has every right as an individual or private citizen to host any religious event she chooses.”
Similar questions were raised back in 2011, when, on the eve of announcing what would become his first doomed presidential run, then-Gov. Rick Perry hosted a massive Houston prayer rally he dubbed “The Response.” In his 13-minute speech/prayer/scripture-reading delivered before thousands of faithful constituents, Perry insisted the event was apolitical—even though it played host to some of the most controversial religious figures on the Christian right.
Unlike Perry, however, Adams doesn't appear to have invited to her prayer powwow religious leaders who call the Roman Catholic Church the “whore of Babylon,” who think Oprah's the precursor to the anti-Christ or who claim the Democratic Party is literally run by a shadowy horde of demons. The event listing for Adams's rally appears much more benign.
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Still, mixing school and faith has become a touchy issue in Texas in recent years, in part due to the all-out culture war at the State Board of Education over science and history textbook standards.
In 2011, for instance, an agnostic family sued the Medina Valley ISD, claiming school officials regularly mixed religion with school events. In 2013, East Texas's Kountze ISD banned cheerleaders from waving banners emblazoned with Bible verses at high school football games after the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint with the district; a state district court judge determined it was a free speech issue and allowed the banners. Perhaps one of the most famous church-state school cases in the country centered on Santa Fe ISD. In 2000, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the district to halt the practice of student-led prayer before high school football games, saying the practice violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
Adams, on the other hand, says her prayer rally isn't using any district resources, and that the groups of religious leaders won't be praying inside HISD schools Saturday, just outside on the school grounds.
“I've always held faith events, whether it's community prayer walks, whether it's attending local faith congregations, this is nothing new,” Adams told the Houston Press. “This is so if people want to go to local schools and pray around the schools, they have the opportunity to do that,” she said. “Nothing will take place inside any schools. … I would never impose my faith onto anyone.”