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FFRF corrects W.Va. state delegate’s dubious state/church separation claims

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is correcting several erroneous comments made by West Virginia Delegate Gary Howell in response to an FFRF letter.

After receiving complaints from a Mineral County Schools district parent that Frankfort High School football coaches were impermissibly praying with their players during a game, FFRF sent a letter to Superintendent Troy Ravenscroft reminding him of the district’s constitutional obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion. Public schools coaches, FFRF’s letter explained, are not allowed to lead or participate in prayers with their teams when they are acting in their official capacity as district employees, as it constitutes a government endorsement of religion.

The district replied, stating that it would investigate FFRF’s claims and would view this as “an opportunity to work with staff and athletic coaches on observing and upholding the First Amendment, its boundaries and requirements.”

Shortly after FFRF's letter, Howell issued a press release calling FFRF’s letter “snowflake political correctness run amok” and asserting that coaches and players have a “sacred right” to pray during games with their players. Howell also commented:

Just because this organization believes that the separation of church and state — words that are not in the Constitution, by the way — means that we must exclude all public displays of religious expression, that does not mean others must abide by their beliefs.

FFRF has sent a letter to Howell, correcting these dubious claims.

First, FFRF makes clear that the separation of state and church is well-settled constitutional doctrine and the only guarantee for true religious liberty.

“A secular government is the only way to truly protect religious liberty for every citizen,” FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson writes to Howell. “When the government can coerce, demand or even recommend or initiate that an American pray in a certain way or on a certain day, the religious freedom we all hold most dear is violated.”

FFRF also clarified that government employees, such as public school coaches, may not legally wield the authority of their positions to push religious practices.

“Students are free to pray in public schools so long as they don’t disrupt the education of others,” Johnson continues. “When they are told to pray, or when coaches make it clear that they want students to pray, the religious freedom of those students has been violated by the government.”

Finally, FFRF’s letter points out to Howell that when he used his public office, granted to him by the people of West Virginia, to opine publicly on how many people should be “joining hand-in-hand in prayer,” he is similarly stepping over the line toward impermissible religious endorsement.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including in West Virginia. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.