School Group Told Not to Pray on U.S. Supreme Court Steps

By James Tillman

WASHINGTON, July 19, 2010 ( – Earlier this year police reportedly told a Christian school teacher who was leading her students in quiet, private prayer on the steps of the Supreme Court building that she was not permitted to pray there.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian legal association, has sent a letter to Supreme Court officials threatening legal action unless the Supreme Court police retract their policy and permit the teacher to exercise her constitutionally-protected right to the free exercise of religion.

“Christians shouldn’t be silenced for exercising their beliefs through quiet prayer on public property,” said Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Nate Kellum. “The last place you’d expect this kind of obvious disregard for the First Amendment would be on the grounds of the U.S. Supreme Court itself, but that’s what happened.”

On May 5, Mrs. Maureen Rigo, a teacher at Wickenberg Christian Academy in Arizona, was taking an educational tour of the Capitol with 10 students and three parents.  The first stop of the day was the front steps of the Supreme Court, where they took a few pictures before quietly gathering on the bottom level of the steps to pray.

According to ADF they were holding no signs and speaking only in a conversational tone; nevertheless, a court police officer quickly approached them and told them to stop.

“Ma’am, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t pray, but you can’t do it here," he said, according to Mrs. Rigo. "Please go somewhere else.”

She asked, "Since when?"

He answered, "This week."

The group then moved off the steps of the Supreme Court building and began to pray on the streets.

Their prayer was stopped based on statute 40 U.S.C. §6135, which pertains to parades and protests.

It forbids acting in a way meant "to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement" on the Supreme Court building grounds.

The ADF, however, claims that it is absurd to say that 40 U.S.C. §6135 would forbid the sort of prayer in which the school group was engaged.

"Mrs. Rigo's prayers were not communicated to anyone outside of God and her very small group," the letter argues.

"Her prayers are akin to routine conversations conducted by any other small group of persons touring the Supreme Court grounds."

It continues: "Likewise, Mrs. Rigo was not engaging in a parade, procession, or assembly. She was speaking in a conversational level to those around her with her head bowed."

This means, according to the ADF, that the police officer had "targeted a particular viewpoint for censorship."

"They have singled out and censored religious prayer as the only form of conversation to be silenced," the letters states.

Unless Supreme Court officials inform Mrs. Rigo that she may engage in quiet prayer on the Supreme Court grounds within three weeks, the letter says she will have no choice but to take legal action to ensure that her constitutional rights are not infringed.

Mrs. Rigo and the students, however, say that they at least found the experience educational. The following day they toured the Holocaust Museum.

“Some [students] commented on the way the horror in Germany began so simply with the removal of rights for the Jews while so many others looked the other way,” Mrs. Rigo wrote in an article for the Sonoran News. Other students questioned whether similar policies for Christians were beginning in America.

She finished by saying that students at least learned that “now, more than ever before, they need to be praying for our country.”

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