Recent letters of complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation have ended longstanding violations in DeSoto County, Miss., and Bell County, Ky., involving illegal prayer before school football games.
The School Board in DeSoto County, Hernando, Miss., last night reaffirmed a policy it adopted eight years ago barring school prayers. The action came after FFRF’s Aug. 10 letter of complaint.
"Our current policy is not to have prayers in football games and we're going to abide by that which we believe the law to be," said Keith Treadway, board attorney. "We will not have prayer over the PA. The principals have all expressed they are aware of the law and intend to abide by it,” Treadway told the DeSoto Times Tribune.
“And we’ll say ‘amen’ to that,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s letter noted that students are encouraged to pray at mealtime and at graduation ceremonies, which the official policy also forbids.
Bell County School Superintendent George Thompson, Pineville, Ky., halted the practice of inviting a local pastor to “offer prayer” over loudspeakers, following FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s Aug. 9 letter of complaint earlier this month.
Thompson was quoted as publicly saying, “We’ve always taken a position that we’ve going to do it until someone makes us stop. And apparently, it appears that time has come for us.”
“While we’re pleased at the quick action to halt this unconstitutional practice, what is so very troubling about this case is that the superintendent admitted freely to media that he knew the practice was a violation,” Gaylor said.
“How many students of diverse viewpoints have been knowingly subjected to illegal Christian prayer because the superintendent hadn’t yet ‘gotten caught’?” Gaylor asked. “This is sending a message of contempt for our constitutional principle of separation between religion and government. It is miseducating students, and it is appalling.”
These legal victories follow a letter from the public school district in Nantahala, S.C., which agreed to better monitor invited speakers at graduation ceremonies following an FFRF complaint. Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart prayed, told the students how much they needed God and Jesus, called the devil a “roaring lion” and tied up a volunteer student with ropes and stuck a sack over his head, saying, “This is a metaphor for how the devil is out to destroy you and tie you up.”
FFRF’s legal team has been very busy in August already correcting state-church violations in public schools opening for fall semester throughout the nation. Among a recent complaint is one to officials in Opelousas, La., over a principal’s involvement in a Roman Catholic “blessing” of a public school.
The principal, Rodney Johnson, permitted Rev. Jason Mangalath, a priest from Holy Ghost Catholic church, on behalf of the Blood Covenant Women of God Club, to enter the school and “bless every inch” of it, reciting the Lord’s prayer, giving a liturgy, and sprinkling holy water in offices, classrooms, halls and meeting rooms as his followers chanted the “Hail Mary.” The superintendent told media he had refused the priest’s request, and hadn’t known the principal had agreed.
Among other early school-year violations reported and acted on by FFRF were teacher orientations in churches and the imposition of Christian prayer on public school employees. In Pascagoula, Miss., the principal in late July called a public prayer session at his school to invite faculty, students, parents and pastors to pray for success during the school year. Heads bowed, eyes closed, a large circle of people prayed and praised, according to local coverage. A youth pastor led the rally. A faculty member intoned, “You can take prayer out of our schools but not out of our hearts, Lord.” FFRF is awaiting responses to these complaints.
“We can indeed take prayer out of public schools,” commented Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “Religion in our schools is divisive, usurps parental authority and interferes in students' rights of conscience. It is also unlawful according to decades of consistent Supreme Court rulings.
"We salute our legal staff for winning quick legal victories in Mississippi and Kentucky to stop any further prayer at school football games and commencements.”