Religion and politics seem inescapably intertwined this year. In the latest case, Attorney General Ken Paxton warned Frisco ISD that it might be violating the separation of church and state by having a prayer room for Muslim students at a high school. Frisco fought back on Friday with a warning to Paxton: In the current political atmosphere, he might be endangering the district's faculty, staff, and students—implying the possibility of anti-Muslim violence. Unmoved, Paxton went on "Fox and Friends" Monday to claim his office had not heard back from Frisco.
The Frisco controversy began with a student news story at the Liberty High School broadcast site Wingspan (a nod to Rocky, the school's red hawk mascot). According to Wingspan, room C112 is used as a prayer room during lunches. Students have been praying at school for about seven years without complaint or incident.
"This is my seventh year at Liberty, my first year it kind of started when a core group of students were leaving campus every Friday for Friday prayer," Principal Scott Warstler said. "Their parents would come pick them up, so they may miss an hour and a half to two hours to two and a half hours of school every Friday, so I met with those students and a couple of their parents and suggested if they would be okay if the students were able to lead the prayer at school as a group, and we gave them a space to do that so they didn't have to be in a car traveling thirty minutes each way on a Friday missing an hour, hour and a half, of class."
Warstler went on to say students of other religions also hold prayer groups at the school.
"Like I've said, this is the seventh year that we've been doing this and we've never had one issue. You know we have other religious student groups that meet maybe before school or maybe after school. As long as it's student-led, where the students are organizing and running it, we pretty much as a school stay out of that and allow them their freedom to practice their religion."
Paxton's first assistant attorney general, Jeff Mateer, is the former general counsel for the First Liberty Institute, a non-profit dedicated to suing to protect religious freedom. And, as the Washington Post noted, Paxton went to court last year to force a Killeen school to allow a nurse's aide to put a poster on her door of A Charlie Brown Christmas that included a biblical passage about the birth of Christ. But a Muslim prayer room, apparently, was too much for Paxton's office.
In a letter to Frisco ISD Superintendent Jeremy Lyon, Deputy Attorney General Andrew Leonie wrote that the prayer room may violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment by excluding students of other faiths from the room. The letter said Paxton obtained his information from the student news story, although the student story contained no mention of others being excluded from the room. Paxton's news release on Friday stated:
Recent news reports have indicated that the high school's prayer room is dedicated to students who practice Islam, while apparently excluding students of other faiths. "Liberty High School's policy should be neutral toward religion," reads the letter from Deputy Attorney General Andrew Leonie to Frisco ISD Superintendent Jeremy Lyon. "However, it appears that students are being treated different based on their religious beliefs. Such a practice, of course, is irreconcilable with our nation's enduring commitment to religious liberty."
Using language much like that of the First Liberty Institute, Leonie described freedom of religion as the "first liberty," because it is the first freedom mention in the First Amendment. On Twitter, Leonie describes himself as a "Deplorable & Irredeemable Texas Christian Tea Party Republican Constitutionalist Conservative Libertarian & Government Lawyer & Judge."
Governor Greg Abbott backed Paxton up with a Friday tweet that read: "The Texas Attorney General is looking into the Public School Prayer Room issue many of you have questioned."
Frisco fired back, with a letter from Lyon to Leonie saying first and foremost, no one had questioned the room except Paxton's office.
However, your letter to me begins by indicating it is written following an "initial inquiry" that "left several questions unresolved." What initial inquiry are you referring to? To Frisco ISD's knowledge, it has not received any inquiry from the OAG on this issue. Frisco ISD requests documentation of any and all efforts by the OAG to contact the District prior to your office issuing its "Press Release" to the media. Absent such evidence, this "Press Release" appears to be a publicity stunt by the OAG to politicize a non-issue.
Lyon said the district has a legal obligation to try to accommodate students' religious practices so long as they are student led. "It is important to note Frisco ISD is greatly concerned that this type of inflammatory rhetoric in the current climate may place the District, its students, staff, parents and community in danger of unnecessary disruption," Lyon wrote.
Lyon's letter did not dissuade Paxton. As we noted in "The Televangelism of Ken Paxton" last year, when his back is to the wall, Paxton takes to the airwaves. He appeared Monday morning on "Fox and Friends" in a segment called "Trouble with Schools" to promote the idea that the prayer room discriminates against students of other faiths.
Paxton lived in Frisco for many years and was among the founders of a fundamentalist Christian church there before moving to McKinney. He is tentatively scheduled to go on trial in Collin County on May 1 on a third-degree felony charge of failing to register as a securities dealer when he was in private practice as an attorney. Prosecutors in the case have accused Paxton's legal team of trying to generate publicity to influence the local jury pool to his favor.