MIDDLESBORO, Ky. — A prominent atheist activist organization has renewed its complaint against a school board in Kentucky after it recently decided to reinstate pre-game prayers—but with the stipulation that the prayers be led by students.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) recently sent a letter to the superintendent of the Bell County Board of Education to ask that it recant its approval of the prayer practice.
“We ask that the board rescind this unconstitutional decision and refrain from injecting illegal prayer at school-sponsored events,” it wrote. “[I]t is surprising … that the school board would knowingly violate the law and bring back prayer before athletic games.”
Prayers had previously been presented during Bell County High School games by a local Christian minister, but were discontinued in 2011 after FFRF likewise sent a letter declaring that the practice is unconstitutional. The Kentucky Education Department had provided counsel to school officials following receipt of the correspondence that clergy-led prayers at public high school games ran afoul to federal case law.
However, according to reports, during a recent booster club meeting, several in attendance stated that they missed having the prayers at the games. The booster club then approached Superintendent Yvonne Gilliam about the matter, who told them that the prayers must be student-led to be permissible.
The following day, a student group called “First Priority” approached Gilliam, who took the matter to the board. The Bell County School Board then approved First Priority’s request last Tuesday.
“We’ll have several of our First Priority students … who are interested in leading the prayer,” teacher Samantha Johnson told WKYT-TV. “It’s not an organized prayer. It will happen sometime before the game, probably over the loud speaker.”
Last Friday, students offered their first prayer at the event. Gilliam explained that the students had to find their own public address system to use as the school stayed completely separate from the offering of the invocation.
“They’re basically on their own,” she told reporters. “All we’re doing is allowing students the freedom of expression if they so choose.”
However, now that the prayers have resumed, FFRF says that it has again obtained complaints about the invocations and is seeking for permission to First Priority to be rescinded.
“The district must take immediate action to ensure prayers are not scheduled at athletic events,” it wrote. “The board must immediately rescind its decision to host prayers before the games, even under the condition that they are ‘student led.'”
FFRF further asserted that it “makes no difference how many people want prayer or wouldn’t be offended by prayer at school events…” However, it incorrectly assumed in the correspondence that the school public address system was being provided to students, in addition to the time.
Booster club leader Joe Humfleet told the Associated Press that he hoped the district wouldn’t cave to FFRF’s demands.
“We need to go on with what’s right,” he said. “We’re letting the minority dictate what we do. It’s not right morally, and it’s not right by our American way.”