LINCOLN, NE - The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska today filed a civil rights complaint with the State Department of Education, charging that the superintendent of the Petersburg School District violated the rights of students by initiating a public prayer at a student assembly.
""The state licenses educators to teach, not to lead public prayers,"" said ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Tim Butz. ""Superintendent Richard Stephens' actions violated the First Amendment of the Constitution and raises questions about his fitness to hold a school administrator's certificate.""
According to reports, at a student assembly held on February 14, 2001 to discuss issues arising from school consolidation, Stephens told students that when he faced tough times, he would ""turn to the Lord for His help ? and I say a prayer to help me get through these difficult times in my life."" Stephens then began a prayer asking for God's help in the school merger process.
Butz said the ACLU of Nebraska learned of the incident from an e-mail sent by a student. The student, fearing retribution, asked the ACLU to file the complaint under its own name.
The federal and state constitutions prohibit actions that give rise to government endorsement of religious beliefs.
The ACLU's complaint alleges that Stephens violated seven different sections of the Nebraska Administrative Code and the Code of Ethics that governs teachers and administrators. The complaint will be investigated by the State Department of Education, which has the power to punish Stephens with sanctions ranging from reprimand to the loss of his educator's license.
""Superintendent Stephens must be held personally accountable for his actions,"" said Butz. ""The courts have spoken clearly on the matter of school prayer and have proscribed the very conduct that Mr. Stephens engaged in. There are a variety of religious beliefs among the student body, and it is not Mr. Stephens job to dictate what or how they pray.""