FFRF calls out evangelical Mississippi school field trip

1Agricola MississippiThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling attention to a recent Mississippi elementary school religious field trip that was a serious constitutional violation.

FFRF was contacted by a concerned family member of a student at Agricola Elementary (located in Lucedale, Miss.) who reported that school officials organized a field trip to Agricola Baptist Church, where the students watched a performance called “Soul on Fire.” This is an evangelical musical featuring songs meant to teach the audience the Gospel, such as “The Mighty Name of Jesus,” “Three in One,” which is about the Holy Trinity, and “Soul on Fire,” with lyrics like “Lord, I’m longing for Your praise, I’m waiting for the day when I am a soul on fire.” The overall message of the performance is one of devotion and obedience to the Christian God and the importance of peer-to-peer proselytization. For instance, a major plot point is the children ganging up on a boy named Thomas (who a girl says reminds her “of Doubting Thomas from the bible”) until he converts to Christianity. The performance ends with a discussion of the Great Commission — where, the actors explain, Jesus said to go forth into the world and make disciples and baptize them —followed by the song “Send Me!” which is about the importance of traveling the globe to tell people to worship Jesus “as their Savior and their King.”

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — which protects each American’s individual religious freedom by ensuring the continued separation of religion and government — prohibits public schools from endorsing a religious message, FFRF reminds the Georgia County School District.

“Public schools must not advance a religious message because ‘the preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere,’” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court, FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover writes to Superintendent Pam Touchard. “Bringing public school students on a field trip to a church for the purpose of seeing an evangelical musical that encourages worshipping Jesus and peer-to-peer evangelism constitutes a blatant violation of students’ and parents’ constitutional rights."

An event like this excludes non-Christian and nonreligious students by turning them into outsiders in their own school community, FFRF stresses. Public schools must be mindful of remaining inclusive of all students, given their young and impressionable nature, especially at the elementary school level. An event that encourages peer-to-peer proselytization is particularly inappropriate, as such efforts by children often escalate into bullying.

And organizing this field trip would remain illegal even if participation was voluntary or guardian permission was required. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.

It is an egregious abuse of government power to proselytize a captive audience of very young, impressionable school children, FFRF emphasizes. No public school should dictate what religion to believe in, or encourage its students to evangelize those who practice a minority religion or no religion at all. The George County Schools District must take steps to ensure that this sort of religious field trip does not take place in the future, as well as assure the parents of students who attended this event that it will not be repeated.

“The performance that these kids attended was blatantly evangelical in nature,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The purpose of the field trip seems to have been to fill their heads with Christian indoctrination — a clearly inappropriate goal for a public school.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members across the country, including many in Mississippi. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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