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Letcher school board gets 2nd prayer complaint


For the second time in 15 months, the Letcher County School District has received a complaint alleging it violated the Constitution’s establishment of religion clause and infringed on students’ rights.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to protect the legal wall between church and state, sent the letter June 4 informing Superintendent Denise Yonts that it had received a complaint about public prayer during commencement exercises at Letcher County Central High School.

“A concerned community member has reported to FFRF that at the 2020-2021 Letcher County Central High School graduation, where you were a distinguished guest in attendance, the school principal invited a graduating salutatorian to lead the audience in an invocation. Staff members participated in this Christian prayer by bowing their heads,” said the letter, which was signed by Joseph McDonald, Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow at the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations. See Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992) (declaring unconstitutional clergy-delivered prayers at a public school graduation). School officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, or benediction at a public high school graduation,” the letter says. “The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”

Superintendent Yonts said she was on vacation when the letter was sent, but said she had received an email telling her it would be coming. She said it will be forwarded to the school board attorney to verify the legal argument.

“We want to protect all of our students’ rights, including Christians and everybody else,” she said.

The letter was not mentioned at the regular June meeting of the Board of Education Monday night. As is its usual practice, the board opened the meeting with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.

The letter says that inviting someone forward for a prayer could make “an objective observer” believe that the school has endorsed a particular religion, when that is strictly prohibited by the Constitution.

“ The courts have continually reaffirmed that the rights of minorities are protected by the Constitution. It makes no difference how many students want prayer or wouldn’t be offended by prayer at their graduation ceremony. As the Supreme Court has said, ‘fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.’ … (quoting W.Va. Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943)),” the letter said. “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.”

The letter asks that the foundation be informed of what Yonts is doing to “ensure that religious rituals are not part of graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events.”

The letter is the second time the foundation has contacted the school in the past 15 months. Between October 2019 and March 2020, the FFRF sent other complaints to the district after a Whitesburg resident asked that it intervene to have a Bible verse removed from the wall of the football locker room at Letcher County Central High School. Those letters, like this one, requested that the display be removed, but did not threaten legal action. The district complied in March of 2020.

The fact that the foundation is sending another letter about another issue so isn’t unusual, said Madeline Ziegler, staff attorney for the FFRF.

“It’s pretty typical that we will just hear about things and they will address that one thing,” Ziegler said, adding that the foundation doesn’t go looking for violations, but accepts complaints from people in each community where it responds. The Letcher County Central High School complaint was the first school complaint in Kentucky this year and the third overall. The others were concerning the expenditures by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build a church sanctuary elsewhere in the state.

“We’re really reliant on the people who contact us,” Ziegler said. “We’re contacted by people who are affected by these issues.”

The FFRF is a national organization, based in Madison, Wis., that describes itself as a “non-prophet non-profit” and a watchdog for the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

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