ELKHART — An atheist group claims Elkhart Central High School and the Elkhart Police Department violated the law when a teacher and police officer joined students in prayer during a See You at the Pole event at the high school on Sept. 26.
Members of the Northern Indiana Atheists released a video showing students praying at the event.
They claim participation by the adults is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution as well as the Equal Access Act.
Leading the prayer is Elkhart Police Officer Cody Skipper, who serves as a school resource officer at Elkhart Central.
According to the Equal Access Act, government and school employees cannot participate in, only observe, such events.
“I don’t care about laws,” the police officer can be heard saying following the prayer.
The Northern Indiana Atheists claim that the woman standing to his right is a teacher at the school.
“It’s the position of Northern Indian Atheists and American Atheists that a uniformed officer and a public school teacher leading students in prayer is prohibited by the Establishment Clause and is a violation of the Elkhart Community Schools policy,” Northern Indiana Atheists President Troy Moss said.
“It also goes against their statement from 2013 when they said they understood their obligation to maintain a status of neutrality on matters related to religious belief, and to avoid actions which might be construed as endorsement of any particular religious beliefs. Those are their words,” Moss said.
Elkhart Chief of Police Ed Windbigler said he received a complaint from the group and that the city attorney is reviewing it.
“Depending on when school starts, when school’s out and all these types of things, I want him to legally look at it and give me his opinion before we move forward with it,” Windbigler said.
“We have to investigate and see if there was something that was violated, and if there was, then we’ll take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Assistant Chief Todd Thayer.
Elkhart Community Schools has not confirmed that the person standing next to Skipper is a teacher.
“At least my read of the Constitution and the court decisions is that as long as she is not leading the activity and is just there as a bystander, I don’t believe that reaches the level where there is the imprimatur of the state,” said District Counsel and Chief of Staff at Elkhart Community Schools Douglas Thorne.
The alleged teacher does not appear to be leading the prayer, but she is in the prayer circle.
“Now, if this happened during work hours, if this was a school-sponsored function, obviously the rules change significantly at that point in time. She would then, at that juncture, be truly a representative of the state,” Thorne said.
According to Brenda Kolbe, director of communication at the school corporation, teachers at Elkhart Central can choose to work 6:55-2:55 a.m. or 7:05-3:05 a.m.
Northern Indiana Atheists said the event took place at 7:05 a.m, which would be during a teacher’s workday. A photo of the event, taken on an iPhone, shows a 7:06 a.m. timestamp.
The complaint from Northern Indiana Atheists and American Atheists asks that both the school and the police department take steps to educate their employees on what they can and cannot do when it comes to religious activities.
“I think that our employees have a fairly decent understanding of what the limits are in terms of their First Amendment rights during the workday in the workplace,” Thorne said.
He said that if there was a violation, he would speak with any involved employee and clarify the school’s expectations.
“The challenge for schools in this area is, we have organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation (and) the atheist organization that brought this to our attention on one side, and on the other side we have organizations who like to draw attention to any effort to abridge the religious freedom of students and employees. Quite honestly, I’ve been attacked by both sides. So we try to remain religiously neutral,” he said.
Moss said this has happened before in Elkhart, and that the Northern Indiana Atheists will be expanding its school auditor program in 2019.
“The hope is we don’t find any more violations, but we’ll be watching,” he said.