Hannah Allen

HONEY GROVE — A 2018 incident that sparked debate about religious liberty has received renewed attention after a Honey Grove student visited the White House this week.

Hannah Allen, a high school student and resident of Honey Grove, said she was one of several students who were told not to pray at school in September of 2018 and felt “ashamed” of their faith when staff told the students to relocate their prayer circle during lunchtime.

Allen’s situation was blown out of proportion, Honey Grove Superintendent Todd Morrison said. The school district never discouraged prayer, never told the students they could not pray or pressured them to hide their actions, he said. Instead, staff asked the students to relocate their prayer circle, as they were blocking the lunch lines during a busy time of day.

The incident became the face of a resolution signed by President Donald Trump this week, where Hannah and her mother, Carrie Allen, attended a White House press conference Thursday. They stood next to the president as he signed a

resolution promoting the right to pray in public schools, and Hannah shared her account.

After the incident occured, Morrison joined the prayer circle the next day to show his support, he said, and made it clear he was in favor of their activity.

But Carrie Allen, Hannah’s mother, felt the school administration had gone too far and reached out to First Liberty Institute, a non-profit, pro bono organization that provides representation in religious liberty cases. Lawyers sent a letter to Honey Grove ISD in October 2018.

“By mandating that Hannah and the other students hide when they pray, Principal Frost sends a message to Hannah and all the other students in the school that prayer is illegitimate, disfavored and should not occur in public,” the letter stated. “By quarantining the praying students as if to shield the other students from an infectious disease, Principal Frost acts with religious hostility impermissible under the Constitution and demeans the religious beliefs of Hannah and her friends.”

The school hosted a public forum for the district, and former principal Lee Frost apologized, Carrie said.

The situation quieted, Morrison said. But well over a year later, in November 2019, Allen was invited to a gala at Trump Tower after First Liberty shared her account of the incident. Her story continued to garner attention, prompting President Donald Trump’s office and Fox News to reach out.

“... my administration is issuing strong new guidance to protect religious liberty in our public schools. The right of students and teachers to freely exercise their faith will always be protected, including the right to pray,” Trump said before signing the resolution.

While the superintendent supports religious liberty and the new federal guidelines, Morrison said he is frustrated by what he describes as “embellishment” surrounding the incident.

“I’m supportive of this resolution and of President Trump,” Morrison said. “But this kind of gives us a black eye.”

Carrie said the incident is not about Honey Grove but about First Amendment rights.

“We love our school, we love our town, and we are thankful to the district for addressing it quickly,” Carrie said. “This wasn’t about Honey Grove school; it’s about protecting religious liberty and the First Amendment.”

Carrie said Hannah felt like she needed to be “ashamed” of her actions and that other children were hesitant to join in the prayer for fear of backlash. This was what prompted her to reach out to First Liberty.

“We love our town. But we wanted to stand up for what we believed in,” Carrie said. “We never wanted to make anyone look bad.”

School staff felt the story had been exaggerated, especially once it began to receive national attention, Morrison said. The district is supportive of students’ right to pray, he said; but the location and time they chose was disruptive to the rest of the campus.

Macon Atkinson is a staff writer for The Paris News. She can be reached at 903-785-6963 or macon.atkinson@theparisnews.com.

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