PASCAGOULA, Miss. — The Alliance Defense Fund sent a letter Thursday to Pascagoula School District officials urging them to disregard threats from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A letter from FFRF demanded that the district prohibit school staff from organizing or participating in private prayer gatherings with other members of the community, such as one that was held on a weekend before the beginning of the school year.

“Public school principals, teachers, and staff members should not be threatened for exercising their constitutionally protected right to organize and participate in private, religious events in their personal capacities. Contrary to what the Freedom From Religion Foundation is arguing, this is not a government establishment of religion by any stretch of the imagination, except theirs,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman.

On Sunday, July 31, a group of community members, parents, and students, including Pascagoula High School staff and faculty members, met outside of the main building’s entrance to pray for the school, faculty, staff, and students for the 2011-2012 school year. Principal Al Sparkman participated in the gathering held several days before the beginning of the school year by engaging in the prayer and by speaking to fellow community members about the difficulties faced by students.

A week-and-a-half later, the Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a letter demanding that the school district take steps to prevent such events in the future. The letter misleadingly confuses such private events with school-sponsored events in an attempt to stop people from praying for the school.

The ADF letter assures the Pascagoula School District Superintendent that school administrators and teachers have the constitutionally protected right to participate in religious activity when done so in their private capacities as parents and/or citizens.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that ‘there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect,’” the ADF letter to school officials explains. “Applying this principle, courts have repeatedly held that a school’s faculty and staff have the constitutional right to participate in community-sponsored religious activities before and after their contracted work times because their participation is constitutionally protected private speech.”

“This situation would be no different from Principal Sparkman teaching a Sunday school class at a church that rented school facilities for its Sunday services,” said ADF Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “In both situations, Principal Sparkman is acting in his personal capacity as a citizen and has the same right to express his religious beliefs as any other citizen.”