Help educate Kentucky community about the First Amendment

FFRF complained about the Bell County, Ky. School District’s practice of hosting prayers, mostly Christian, over loudspeakers to begin school sports events. Superintendent George Thompson begrudgingly halted the practice.

But Thompson has made unprofessional comments about the community being “Christian,” has admitted he knew such prayer was illegal before being contacted by FFRF, and is “proud” of the tradition of illegal prayer. (If the comments are no longer on the district website, you can see FFRF’s archived copy here.) Parents and students (and some teachers, whose behavior FFRF complained about) are organizing an event tonight, Friday, Sept. 30, called “The Lord’s Prayer During the ‘Moment of Silence.’ ”

After reading FFRF’s follow-up letter (below), you may wish to contact Superintendent Thompson to reinforce FFRF’s legal and educational complaint.
You may also wish to send letters to the editor to the Lexington Herald-Leader or (if you are in Kentucky) your local newspaper.

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FFRF writes Bell Co. Superintendent

September 30, 2011


George Thompson
Bell County Board of Education
PO Box 340
 211 Virginia Avenue
Pineville, KY 40977

Re: Need to re-educate the community about First Amendment

Dear Supt. Thompson:

Our organization is appreciative of your swift action to stop unlawful prayers over the loudspeaker at your public school athletic matches. We have received the district’s e-mailed reply yesterday to FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s most recent letter detailing our concerns about some of the teacher-led opposition to this change.  We appreciate your legal representative’s reiteration that you do “not intend to promote any violations of the Constitution or to allow any District employee acting in their capacity as a District employee to do so.  A school sponsored prayer will not be conducted, nor will be a prayer be transmitted through the use of the school’s loud speaker.”

As Ms. Markert noted, we continue to have concerns, however, about your decision to unnecessarily schedule a “moment of silence” in place of prayer, knowing many in the audience will scream out a sectarian prayer in unison, and your extraordinary public comments endorsing the longstanding violations.  These comments include the official statement posted on the website of the Bell County Board of Education:

“The pregame prayer has been a long standing Bell County tradition that we are all proud of.”

“Over the years I have been aware of various court cases that ruled a prayer (even a student led prayer) before a school sponsored event was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.  I have always taken the position that we will continue the prayer until someone makes us stop.”

These are damning admissions.  You, as Superintendent, proudly and knowingly countenanced and apparently encouraged practices in your public school which you knew to be contrary to the law, contrary to the Constitution and contrary to Supreme Court rulings. Your website statement does “confirm the legitimacy of the complaint,” which we appreciate. But you go on to call the advice to cease school prayers “distressing,” and add:

“Our hard held Christian belief in Bell County is the fabric that makes our community special.”

It is far more than distressing, it is very nearly repugnant to hear a public school superintendent pronounce that “Christian belief” is the “fabric that makes our community special.”  What if a Superintendent said “Muslim belief is the fabric that makes our community special” or “Rejection of religion — atheism — is the fabric that makes us special”?  Frankly, Supt. Thompson, you’d soon be out of a job, and deservedly so.

Callous and exclusionary comments foster a climate of bigotry, and send an impermissible message to “nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” Justice O’Connor, Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 627 (1989). 

How is the Jewish parent, the atheist high schooler or any non-Christian resident whose hard-earned taxes help pay for the community schools supposed to react?  You’re not preaching from a pulpit in a Christian church — where such comments would be appropriate.  You are setting a tone for your entire school district. You are misusing your public authority to issue a blanket endorsement of Christianity at the expense of young, impressionable non-Christian and nonbelieving students and their parents.

We urge you to rise to the occasion by taking a leadership role in re-educating your community about the meaning and purpose of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, as well as the Kentucky Bill of Rights, II, Section 5:

“Right of religious freedom. No preference shall ever be given by law to any religious sect, society or denomination; nor to any particular creed, mode of worship or system of ecclesiastical polity; nor shall any person be compelled to attend any place of worship, to contribute to the erection or maintenance of any such place, or to the salary or support of any minister of religion; . . . and the civil rights, privileges or capacities of no person shall be taken away, or in anywise diminished or enlarged, on account of his belief or disbelief of any religious tenet, dogma or teaching. No human authority shall in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

The hysteria greeting a decision by the school board to abide by settled law is a symptom of the fact that students, parents and your community have been victims of systematic miseducation by their community public schools. The District, by example and by unlawful conduct, has created a climate of ignorance and contempt for a precious constitutional principle that protects all citizens.

The courts have continually reaffirmed that the rights of minorities are protected by the Constitution. As the Supreme Court has said, “fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 304-305 (2000) (quoting West Virgina Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943). “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.” Barnette, 319 U.S. at 638. It makes no difference how many parents or teachers in the county want prayers at school events. They are free to pray privately or stop at the church of their choice to and from school events.  Schools may not lawfully sponsor prayer. The Barnette ruling assured students and officials that their beliefs would be protected:

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."  Barnette, 319 U.S. at 642.

By knowingly permitting an illegal practice, your District has failed.  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. The District has an obligation to explain 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 — a defiant spectacle that will intimidate, embarrass and ostracize nonChristians, Jews, other religious minorities, atheists and people who simply respect the need to keep our public schools free of divisive religion.

In one such early case brought by Roman Catholic parents against bible reading in the public schools, Weiss v. District Board, a Supreme Court of Wisconsin justice wisely noted what the brouhaha in your District exemplifies:

“There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.” (44 N.W. 967 (Wis. 1890))

Those who are not impressed by constitutional dictates should perhaps open their bibles and peruse the Sermon on the Mount, which attributes to their god, Jesus, these cautionary words (Matthew 6:5-6):

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

May we hear from you about what steps your District is taking teach you students about the importance and meaning of the First Amendment?

Very truly,

Annie Laurie Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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