Last week, a video was posted on YouTube featuring a five year-old girl telling her parents that she was told by a "lunchroom teacher" at Carillon Elementary School in Oviedo, Florida that she was not allowed to pray before eating her lunch.
When the little girl responded that "it's good to pray," she claims that she was told "it's not good" and was prevented from praying.
Naturally, after the video was posted on-line, serial fabricator Todd Starnes picked it up and turned it into a column while the Family Research Council featured the story in its daily email. On top of that, attorneys from the Religious Right legal group Liberty Institute are now representing the parents and will hold a press conference today:
Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys invites all working media to attend a press availability with Mr. Perez, Tuesday, April 1, at 3:30 PM ET on the sidewalk by the sign outside of Carillon Elementary School, 3200 Lockwood Blvd., Oviedo, FL.
"Of course, students can pray at school!" said Dys. "As the Supreme Court held over half a century ago: Students do not 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.' The school is in violation of Department of Education guidelines that specifically protect this type of prayer, and thus could jeopardize its federal funding."
The Perez Family cited this offense to their daughter's religious liberty as the most immediate reason to remove their daughter from the public education system. "Mainly because of this incident, we have exercised our option as parents to teach our daughter at home," said Marcos Perez. "We live in a very good school district, but we cannot, in good conscience, send our daughter to a school where her religious liberty has been compromised."
All the attention is now generating some local media coverage and, as usually happens in these sorts of cases where Religious Right activists gin up some tale of supposed anti-Christian persecution, school officials are saying the incident never happened:
Michael Lawrence told Local 6 that the principal spoke with staff members in the cafeteria at the time of the incident and said no one recalled having any contact with the child.
"The situation as stated by the parent has not occurred according to the school's investigation," said Michael Lawrence, communications officer for Seminole County Schools. "We're dealing with very young children here so there's quite a bit of an opportunity for miscommunication to occur. The timing and the issues were very odd considering that the first thing that happened was that a video was done, it was on YouTube."
Lawrence said the lunchroom is not under video surveillance and the alleged incident was not recorded. Lawrence also added that the school district allows children to pray on campus anytime.
"If a student wishes to pray at lunch to herself we do not have a policy against that," said Lawrence. He said the principal will remind staff members that prayer in school is OK.
School board member Amy Lockhart told Local 6 the incident cannot be confirmed.
"However, that being said I would be greatly disturbed to find that any Seminole County Public School student had their individual liberties infringed upon in this manner by one of our staff members," said Lockhart. "The freedom to pray when, where and how one chooses is a foundational freedom of our great nation."
If this seems familiar, that is probably because it sounds a lot like the tale of Raymond Raines, a two decade-old myth about a young boy who had supposedly been sentenced to a week of detention for simply praying before eating his lunch in the cafeteria of an elementary school in St. Louis that Religious Right activists still cite today even though it is totally false.
Update: In a totally unsurprising development, The Orlando Sentinel is reporting that the girl's father, Marcos Perez, just so happens to be the VP of sales at the Christian publishing house that is publishing Todd Starnes' forthcoming book:
School officials have not interviewed the girl, who has been pulled from kindergarten at Carillon by her parents, who said they intend to home school her.
Her father is vice president of sales at Charisma House, a Lake Mary-based Christian book publisher. The company is currently promoting the book "God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values," by Todd Starnes.