FFRF forces Kentucky school to halt prayer

After an Aug. 9 letter of complaint from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, Bell County School Superintendent George Thompson, Pineville, Ky., halted the practice of inviting a pastor to “offer prayer” over loudspeakers.

Thompson was quoted in a local news story earlier: “We’re always taken a position that we’ve going to do it [pray over the P.A.] 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,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

“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.”

Thompson told the Lexington Herald-Leader Aug. 25 that he sought guidance from the district’s attorney and the state Education Department. Thompson said the department told him that prayer at the football game violated federal court rulings. The department said the school system would lose if someone sued, said Thompson, a former coach. “It’s one of those things, you really have nowhere to go.”

In a related development, the Republican challenger to Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear in the Nov. 8 general election is trying to make political hay out of the issue. David Williams denounced Beshear, apparently because the state Education Department warned the school district that the prayers were illegal.

Williams issued a self-serving press release Aug. 26 “to denounce this attack on prayer at public functions and lead the efforts of state government to defend our citizens’ right to voluntarily pray anywhere they choose.”

Although Beshear was not involved, Williams said, “It is a travesty that Gov. Beshear will not stand up for freedom of religion in Kentucky, and instead sides with an organization called ‘Freedom From Religion Foundation.’ As governor, I will stand up against out-of-state liberal organizations that want to stomp on our freedom to voluntarily pray in public places.”

Williams also complained that Beshear, as attorney general, ruled that the posting of Ten Commandments was unconstitutional.

“How could Beshear do otherwise? It’s a no-brainer,” said Gaylor. “The Supreme Court correctly and emphatically ruled in Stone vs. Graham, a 1980 case out of Kentucky, that such bible postings were unlawful promotions of religion.”

Ironically, Beshear is no defender of state/church separation. He helped lead the effort to apply Kentucky’s sales tax reimbursement program to construction of a Noah’s Ark theme park designed, as Beshear put it, “to bring to life the various stories and places in the bible.” 

Freedom From Religion Foundation