The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s letter of complaint on behalf of Mississippi FFRF members and supporters of secular government to DeSoto County Schools in Hernando, Miss., rankled residents, many of whom responded like pit vipers. Did school officials realize that prayer at football games and other sporting events was against the law and the district’s own policy, but choose to look the other way until called on it?
FFRF’s complaint dominated TV news and headlines for at least two weeks in August in Hernando and nearby Memphis.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s Aug. 10 letter to Superintendent Milton Kuykendall objected to prayer over the loudspeaker at athletic events and prayer at high school graduations. “It is also our information and understanding that students are often encouraged by their teachers to pray before meals. Our complainant also informs us that a prayer each year at the graduation ceremony, some led by students and some led by you, the superintendent. We understand these prayers are mostly Christian-based prayers.”
Schmitt noted that it’s illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor and lead prayers at athletic events, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down formal teacher or school-led prayer in public schools. “More importantly, the Supreme Court has struck down pregame invocations even when they are student initiated.”
The nation’s highest court has also struck down prayers at public high school graduations, noted Schmitt, citing Lee v. Weisman and other cases. “It is no defense that graduations are events at which participation or attendance is voluntary. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.”
“The law is clear. High school graduations must also be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”
On Aug. 20, the Desoto Times-Tribune reported that Kuykendall had asked the school’s attorney, Keith Treadway, to investigate the legality of the loudspeaker prayers. Two days later, Treadway met with the School Board. After the meeting, the paper quoted Treadwell: “Our current policy is not to have prayers at football games, and we’re going to abide by that which we believe the law to be. We will not have prayer over the P.A. The principals have all expressed they are aware of the law and intend to abide by it.”
This is the district’s policy on religion, adopted in 2008:
School administrators, teachers and staff shall take a neutral approach regarding the promotion of prayer or other religious activities in schools or at school-sponsored events. They cannot interfere with students exercising their religious rights as permitted by law and they cannot tell or suggest to students that they should pray or participate in religious activities. Prayer over the intercom or at school-related activities shall not be allowed except as specifically stated above. Students may begin the school day with a brief period of quiet reflection of up to 60 seconds. This is not intended to be a religious service or exercise. Administrators, teachers and staff should not conduct themselves in any manner that would suggest that this period of quiet reflection is a time of prayer but should remain neutral in this activity. The Board is committed to following the law and to protecting the freedoms of all students, both those who wish to exercise their religious freedoms and those who prefer not to exercise those rights.
Treadway told the Times-Tribune that he knew that FFRF had contested such prayer elsewhere. “I was aware that other districts in Tennessee and Mississippi had received the letter and was expecting something this year or next year.”
Under mounting pressure from religious people, Superintendent Kuykendall made this public statement Aug. 24. “In my opinion, most people do not realize that this organization out of Wisconsin doesn’t really care if we have prayer in our schools. They see an opportunity to try and accuse us of breaking the law and therefore give them a chance to sue our district and win a lawsuit and take millions of our funds. This is money that is needed to pay teachers and educate our students.”
[Editor’s note: At this point, it’s clear that Kuykendall and Treadway both knew that district policy was not being followed but don’t seem to care.]
In an Aug. 26 letter, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor took Kuykendall to task for his defamatory comments and false allegations. “You should not only be apologizing to our organization for your unwarranted smear, you should be apologizing to past graduates, parents and your community for your clear failure to do your job. The purpose of a public school is to educate, not to proselytize. This should be a ‘teachable moment,’ not an occasion to continue to demonstrate contempt for the law and student rights.
Gaylor continued, “Your district should be explaining to students and parents what the law says, and why that law was adopted — to protect their rights of conscience, to ensure that the rights of parents to instruct their children in religion and religious ritual are not usurped, and to avoid the kind of spectacle it appears your community will put on tonight [at a football game] — a defiant spectacle that will intimidate, embarrass and ostracize non-Christians, Jews, other religious minorities, atheists and people who simply respect the need to keep our public schools free of divisive religion.”
FFRF noted it has never “made money” through litigation. It raises funds in order to be able to sue as a last resort to correct violations. It does not sue to “make money,” and has received damages only once — $1 for a father fighting religious instruction in elementary schools in Dayton, Tenn. He and FFRF won a victory in the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Gaylor told the Times-Tribune: “We are frugal. We are a nonprofit. “We do not want to spend precious dollars to defend the law in school cases. We always try to negotiate with the school district. We point out that it penalizes the taxpayers and robs the school district. It’s the district’s choice when they violate the law.
“We get a lot of crank mail and abuse from religious blogs,” Gaylor said. “It’s incredibly depraved, horrible language and grotesque sexual imagery, and we can put up with that, but we won’t put up with a public official trying to defame us.”
FFRF shared several pages of public “input” from the region with the paper, which called it “grotesque and offensive” in a news story. [See Crank Mail on Page 17.]
‘Take a Knee!’ for Jesus
The Times-Tribune reported that “hundreds of parents and students spontaneously gathered to pray aloud” before the opening kickoff of football games across DeSoto County on Aug. 26. Rev. Mike Coker, pastor of the Refuge Church in Hernando led a prayer outside Tiger Stadium before the game and encouraged people in the crowd to pray. After the singing of the national anthem, people in the stands recited the Lord’s Prayer.
“The group prayer was not sponsored by the DeSoto County School system and was led by parents, not teachers or administrators,” the paper reported.
On Sept. 4, about 500 people prayed on the courthouse lawn in Hernando at an event billed as “Take A Knee! DeSoto County.” It was organized by Ronnie Pollard, a candidate for sheriff in the Nov. 8 general election.
In an Aug. 31 editorial, the Times-Tribune referred to emails telling FFRF staff to “ ‘burn in hell.’ Those are mild compared to other less charitable messages. Did Christ tell the woman at the well to burn in hell? No. [Emails] are signed with patently obvious fake names that sound more like sexual deviants than a reasonable person trying to practice their Christian faith.”
The Memphis [Tenn.] Commercial Appeal supported FFRF in an Aug. 30 editorial. “In the United States, we have the freedom to engage in the faith of our choice or to not practice any faith. Government-sanctioned prayer, such as at high school athletic events, undermines that constitutional guarantee. That’s something DeSoto County residents, upset over the halting of prayers over public address systems at athletic events, should keep in mind.”
On Aug. 25, Schmitt sent the district a letter on a new complaint: “It is our information and understanding that Gideons International is distributing bibles to all fifth-grade students at DeSoto County Schools. One of our complainants informs us that members of this organization came into the classrooms at Oak Grove Central Elementary and asked, ‘Who wants a free bible?’ Other complainants inform us this distribution occurs at DeSoto Central Elementary as well.”
The district hasn’t responded to that letter. On the graduation prayer issue raised in the first complaint, Treadway said the board but will review the policy at a later date.
Read and watch media coverage of FFRF at FFRF in the News at ffrf.org/news/media/ and sign up to get FFRF in the News by email at ffrf.org/signup/news/.