Michigan high school halts prayer at banquet after atheist complaints; asks what more it can do to beat back religion

A Michigan high school is stopping prayer at its senior awards banquet after an atheist group sent a letter threatening a lawsuit over a prayer in May.

Vicksburg High School, serving 777 students…

A Michigan high school is stopping prayer at its senior awards banquet after an atheist group sent a letter threatening a lawsuit over a prayer in May.

Vicksburg High School, serving 777 students in grades 9-12, was sent a threatening letter by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which said it was tipped off to the prayer by an angry parent.

“A concerned Vicksburg Community Schools parent had informed the state/church watchdog that the May 2023 Vicksburg High School senior awards banquet, held at the high school, included two Christian prayers — one before the ceremony and one before dinner,” FFRF declared in a news release.

Such prayers show “favoritism toward or coerce(d) belief or participation in religion,” according to the letter it sent to the superintendent of Vicksburg Community Schools (VCS).

“Please inform us in writing of the steps the District is taking to address this constitutional violation so that we may inform our complainant,” wrote FFRF lawyer Samantha F. Lawrence to VCS Superintendent Keevin O’Neill. 

VCS complied immediately, reassuring FFRF no such prayers or invocations will be allowed going forward.   

“The District appreciates you bringing District parent concerns about these invocations to its attention,” replied attorney Cristina T. Patzelt at Thrun Law, which represents the district. “Please be advised that, from this point forward, the District will not incorporate invocations or prayers into school-sponsored events, like this reception.” 

But the district’s law firm went one step further, asking the atheist group if the district should take other steps to satisfy the organization. “If there are any other steps you feel the District is required to take or you have other questions or concerns as to this matter, please contact me,” added Patzelt.  

FFRF was likewise quick to claim victory, writing in a statement that VCS “made the right move” in yielding to it.   

FFRF often sends such letters to smaller governmental units that have to hire outside counsel at high rates to defend themselves in First Amendment freedom-of-religion cases. Many government administrators just aren’t willing to risk the expense – although there are other organizations that provide free representation to defend them in such cases. 

Still, others aren’t so sure capitulating to the first letter of complaint is the right move.  

“My feeling has always been they were more threats than reality due to not only funding issues, but the availability of qualified lawyers to bring their lawsuits,” Eric Johnston, president of the Southeast Law Institute in Birmingham, told the Montgomery Advertiser about FFRF’s ability to follow through on such lawsuits.

In 2019, FFRF issued implied threats of a lawsuit over the use of religious language to about 40 school districts, local government organizations and elected officials in the state of Alabama alone.   

“A review of the FFRF’s most recent public tax documents show that while it wrote 1,561 letters complaining about alleged establishment clause violations nationwide in 2017, it reported just 22 actual lawsuits either won or pending — only 1.4 percent of their complaints,” reported the Advertiser.  

An opinion column in the newspaper called some of FFRF’s complaints “simply ridiculous.”