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Christian teen in Colorado drops school prayer lawsuit

Chase Windebank. (Courtesy ADF)
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Study hall isn’t thought of as a holy place. Students might gossip, text, sleep — or, if moved, actually do schoolwork. In such environs, Jesus Christ is not typically invoked.

But one student at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs took a different view. Chase Windebank, a self-identified “non-denominational Christian,” thought he could use “seminar” — Pine Creek’s version of study hall — to hold a prayer meeting.

“Freshman year, me and some friends decided to use seminar, instead of talking and texting, to pray,” Windebank told The Washington Post. “Talking about stuff that matters to us and God and stuff.”

For a few years, that was okay with Pine Creek. Windebank’s meetings, eventually attended by up to 90 people, were held in a part of the building that didn’t disturb less liturgically inclined teens. They prayed together. They sang worship songs.

Then last fall, when Windebank was a senior, the administration took exception. School officials said prayer meetings could only take place “before 7:45 a.m. when classes begin, and after 2:45 p.m., when classes end.” Seminar as seminary was out. The seminar period, the school said in a letter to Windebank’s lawyers, was “instructional time,” not a time for “non-curricular” clubs.

Supreme Court rulings over the years have generally barred public school sponsored prayer as an “establishment of religion” prohibited by the First Amendment, though not voluntary religious activities by students. But the school district, in its letter, did not get into any First Amendment issues, other than to say it was not violating Windebank’s constitutional rights.

Windebank complained. Eventually, with the help of the religious Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), he sued, claiming the school was indeed violating his constitutional rights by excluding prayers from an “open time” for students during which they can otherwise “express themselves.”

Now, Pine Creek has sidestepped the lawsuit. It has eliminated its seminar period entirely — for academic reasons, officials say, having nothing to do with Windebank and his lawsuit.

Windebank claims he struck a blow for the First Amendment, saying the school backed down and will now allow prayer at lunch.

“I’m actually quite excited that I was able to take this stand and be able to make a victory for free speech in public schools,” he said. “Not just for me because I filed this lawsuit. For those after me as well, being able to express what they believe.”

The school district claims it has agreed to nothing. Though Pine Creek’s counsel said they were confident about the case, they agreed to a dismissal when Windebank “voluntarily abandoned” his claim, they said.

No other terms were agreed to, no money was paid, and no policies were changed,” Robert J. Zavaglia Jr., an attorney for the school district, wrote in an e-mail.

Zavaglia said the decision to end seminar had nothing to do with Windebank and the ADF, who he said are just grandstanding — especially in their claim that, somehow, the suit led Pine Creek to allow prayer during lunch. The school always permitted prayer at lunch, according to Zavaglia.

“Pine Creek High School has never had, and does not have, a policy in place which restricts students’ rights to associate at lunch, and by extension to meet with others and discuss faith, pray, or talk about the news of the day from a Christian perspective,” he wrote. “As such, no nonexistent policy was revised to achieve the suit’s abandonment.”

He added: “The real dispute of this case was an ill-advised argument to lump a credited, student/teacher contact hour into ‘open time’ like lunch as the basis for seeking special treatment of an informal student group.”

“From day one, this case has been focused on the District’s decision to not only prevent Chase and the other students from praying together,” Matt Sharp of the ADF wrote in an e-mail, “but also the District’s position that students cannot gather for prayer at any time during the school day.”

Sharp called the school’s decision to end the program that led to a lawsuit “suspicious,” particularly since Windebank just graduated.

“Sadly, rather than allow Chase and the other students to pray during Seminar time, the District chose to cancel Seminar for this coming school year,” Sharp wrote. “We think this was an ill-advised decision that strips all students of an important time to build community and engage in discussion on a variety of topics — including religion and prayer. But it is within the prerogative of the District to make that disappointing choice.”

Having stirred up this hornet’s nest, Windebank, 19, now leaves Pine Creek behind. He will travel to South Africa in the fall to do missionary work — then head to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

“Our whole heart is to pray together and encourage one another and openly share our beliefs,” he said.