A group of Christian students was allegedly ordered to stop praying outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on May 5 because a court police officer told them it was against the law.
The students were part of a junior high school American History class at Wickenburg Christian Academy in Arizona. After taking pictures on the steps of the Supreme Court building, their teacher gathered them to a side location where they formed a circle and began to pray.
According to Nate Kellum, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a police officer “abruptly” interrupted the prayer and ordered the group to cease and desist.
“They were told to stop praying because they were violating the law and they had to take their prayer elsewhere,” Kellum told FOX News Radio.
The American History teacher, Maureen Rigo, said she was stunned.
“I was pretty shocked because we’ve prayed there before and it’s never been an issue,” she told FOX News Radio. “His (the police officer’s) comment was ‘I’m not going to tell you that you can’t pray. You just can’t pray here.’”
So the group of 15 students and seven adults left the Supreme Court and relocated to a sidewalk – where Rigo said the children stood in a gutter – and continued their prayer.
“It was just supposed to be a time that we could pray quietly for the Supreme Court, for the decisions they need to make and for our congressmen,” she said. “We kind of feel like our government can use all the prayers it can get.”
“It’s an outrage of the first magnitude,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ). The school is in his congressional district.
“When the day comes that people at the Supreme Court press children off into the gutter before they can pray, it portends a very frightening future for this country,” he told FOX News Radio.
“This police officer acted reprehensibly,” Franks said. “Those students had every right to pray there on the steps of the Supreme Court.”
The Alliance Defense Fund sent a letter to the Supreme Court urging them to stop their police officers from banning prayers.
A spokesperson for the Court said the Marshal of the Court will look into the events alleged by the ADF.
“The Court does not have a policy prohibiting prayer,” said public information officer Kathy Arberg in an email to FOX News Radio.
“The Court’s policy regarding the use of most public areas at the Court has been to permit activity related to the business of the Court, including traditional tourist activity and ingress and egress for visitors, but not to permit demonstrations and other types of activity that may tend to draw a crowd or onlookers,” she said. “In addition, under 40 U.S.C. section 6135, it is unlawful to parade, stand or move in processions or assemblages in the building and grounds, including the plaza and steps, but not including the perimeter sidewalks.”
But Kellum said the 15 students and seven adults did not constitute a parade.
“From what we gather, the police officer at the Supreme Court building determined that because they were bowing their heads, they were bringing notice to their Christianity which they considered a movement and thus violating this federal statute,” he said.
Congressman Franks said he worried about the message it sent to the young children.
“I hope somehow this injustice is brought right,” he said. “These kids shouldn’t grow up thinking that it’s all right to stand by and let that happen to them. Their courage may keep it from happening not only to other children, but may be some sort of example to the nation.”
Bob Ritter, staff attorney for the American Humanist Association and a member of the Supreme Court Bar, said he doesn’t believe the police officer’s action had anything to do with an attack on religion.
“The policy would be that a group of people would not be able to amass on the steps for security reasons,” he told FOX News Radio. “But this would not have anything to do with praying.”
Rigo said she decided to use the events of last May as a learning experience for her young students.
“We do a long study on the U.S. Constitution,” she said. “We talked about the rights that we have given to us in the First Amendment – the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of religion. We have the right to peaceful assembly. We have the right to due process of law. We feel like all of those things had been denied us there.”
And that’s why on the eve of the National Day of Prayer a group of boys and girls from Arizona was praying in a gutter in the shadow of the Supreme Court of the United States.