STILWELL, Oklahoma – More than 400 people, including ministers and out-of-town supporters, gathered at a rural school in Northeastern Oklahoma this week to pray about a lawsuit they say stands against their Christian values.
The crowd assembled to show support for Maryetta School, a rural public institution in Adair County, in the wake of a lawsuit filed late last month by the American Humanist Association Inc. The suit was filed on behalf of a couple, identified as John Doe and Jane Doe, who say they are atheists and are opposed to their minor daughter, identified in court documents as Jill Doe, being forced to attend a religious class at the school.
"Maryetta School officials have brazenly violated the First Amendment rights of their students," said Monica Miller, legal director and senior counsel of the American Humanist Association, in a press release on the organization's website. “No school official could reasonably believe that it is constitutional to subject impressionable prekindergarten students to overt Christian proselytization in a class called ‘Missionaries’ led by church officials, held during school hours and with no option to leave."
The AHA pointed out that Maryetta has, for years, brought Christian missionaries to an hour-long class for grades K-8. The AHA said students are given Bibles and coloring books, and sing songs about Jesus, all under the direct authority of school officials.
“The fact that school officials have run this ‘Missionaries’ program for decades, together with the fact that they have forced children as young as 4 to participate and have done so without parental consent, makes this case appropriate for punitive damages," Miller said in the release.
In a statement attached to the complaint, the 5-year-old girl testified, “I always felt very uncomfortable during 'Missionaries' class because I don’t like pretending to believe in God.”
Members of the group that gathered last week said they support Maryetta's actions.
“We’re all congregating because we believe Christian values are still needed today,” said Max Ford, minister at New Life Church and organizer of the prayer walk. “We feel like the teachers gave the student the option to go."
Green cards were handed out at the event, reminding protesters what to pray for during each of the seven times they walked around a building. Ford encouraged the "prayer warriors" to make sure every building on campus was circumnavigated during the vigil.
“We’re here to support the school and the missionaries. My daughter, Emmalee, loves the missionaries; all of my kids do,” said Caroline Thurman.
Another minister, Steve Mowery, of Victory Baptist, also expressed support.
“I believe we have a great school system and school teachers, and they’ve been having missionaries here for years. I believe if we teach more Jesus in our schools, there would be less people in prison,” Mowery said.
A member of Antioch Baptist Church, Wilson Hitcher grew up in the area and attended Peavine School. He remembers the missionaries who were at the schools then.
“I remember Ms. Ailing and Ms. Bowman. When I became a child of God, later on, I remembered the songs and lessons they taught me. I believe this lawsuit would stop them from having the opportunity to hear the gospel and decide for themselves, like with football or other things, to try and discover what they enjoy,” said Hitcher.
The lawsuit aims to take away the privileges and rights at Maryetta, said Church on the Rock Pastor Terry Mays.
“The missionaries are one of the most important things we have here; they teach character and responsibility. It’s one of our rights as a school and country,” said Mays.
The family int he suit said that although they voiced their objections to school officials, their child was still "forced" to take the class. The AHA filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.
"This happens a lot in small communities where there is not a lot of religious diversity," Miller said. "What if the program was Islamic that schools had been indoctrinating children with for years, without the parents' knowledge? Would Christian parents feel comfortable with that?”