OVIEDO, Fla. – In a cellphone video posted on YouTube, a 5-year-old girl describes what she says happened in her lunchroom when she clasped her hands and bowed her head.
Her father, Marcos Perez, recorded the video and, off-camera, helped the girl reenact the event. Her parents are not revealing her name to protect her identity.
"I was about to pray and say something to Jesus," said the kindergartner.
"How were you going to pray?" asked Perez. "What did you do when you were going to pray? Show me what you did with your hands and whatever else."
"And my lunch teacher told me that when I was about to say something, she said, 'You're not allowed to pray,'" said the girl.
"She said you're not allowed to pray?" asked Perez.
"Yeah," said the girl.
"And then what did you tell her?" asked Perez.
"It's good to pray!" said the girl.
As of Monday evening, the YouTube video had received more than 69,000 views. The Perez family said the exchange occurred in the lunchroom of Carillon Elementary School in Oviedo around the week of March 10.
A spokesman for the Seminole County School District told WKMG-TV that Marcos Perez contacted the school's principal right after posting the video on YouTube.
Michael Lawrence said 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."
Jeremiah Dys, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute based in Texas, now representing the Perez family, refuted Lawrence's timeline, saying Perez wrote several emails to the district before posting the video.
In a four-page letter addressed to the Seminole County School Board and Carillon's Principal, Dys wrote, "This is a violation of the federal law and we expect the school district to apologize to the Perezes and the community as well as take steps to ensure this does not happen again."
Dys gave the board until April 7 to issue a public apology and "announce the steps it is taking to ensure this does not happen in the future" to "avoid any enforcement actions."
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.
In the YouTube video, the girl said she became discouraged after the teacher told her not to pray. "I was trying to pray but I just couldn't because they caught me again," she said.
"Um, OK. Well listen, you need to know this, because we're very proud of you for doing that," said her father, "and I want you to know it's OK to pray wherever you want because no one can tell you not to pray."
Marcos Perez is vice president of sales at Charisma House, a Christian book publisher in Lake Mary. School board member Amy Lockhart said 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."