FFRF protests graduation, athletic prayers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint on behalf of concerned parents and other Mississippi FFRF members to DeSoto County Schools in Hernando. The Aug. 10 letter to Superintendent Milton Kuykendall objects to prayer at athletic events and at high school graduations.

FFRF, a state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., is the nation's largest group of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, with more than 16,000 members, including many in Mississippi.

"It is our information and understanding that prayers are given over the loudspeaker at high school football games, basketball games and other sporting events," wrote Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt.

"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 [ital] Lee v. Weisman and several 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."

Schmitt concluded, "We ask that the school district commence an immediate investigation into the complaints alleged, and take immediate action to stop any and all prayers occurring before any athletic events and graduation ceremonies. We ask that you promptly inform us in writing of the steps DeSoto County Schools will take to remedy this serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment."

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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