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School supt. gets praise, criticism over the removal of religion works

Controversy over displays

Letcher County School Superintendent Denise Yonts said she has received criticism and support for removing religious displays from the schools after complaints from a national nonprofit.

The Letcher County School District has removed some religious displays from Fleming-Neon Middle School, Martha Jane Potter Elementary School and Letcher County Central High School after two letters of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).

The national organization, based in Madison, Wis., describes itself as a “non-prophet non-profit” and watchdog for Constitutional principle of separation of church and state. It made its complaint on behalf of a Whitesburg resident who asked that it intervene.

Yonts said she removed the displays on the advice of the board attorney. Response, she said, has been mixed.

“I’ve gotten a lot of negative comments and feedback, but mostly they’ve been supportive,” she said.

The FFRF sent the original letter sent October 11, asking that the school district address two displays.

“A concerned area resident has reported multiple instances of Letcher County Public Schools promoting and endorsing religious messages,” the letter from staff attorney Chris Line says. “Our complainant reports that Fleming- Neon Middle School has a display in its hallway that says, ‘Jesus is my savior You can’t scare me!’ We also understand that Martha Jane Potter Elementary posted a prayer on its official Facebook page on August 12, 2019.”

The letter also contained photos of the displays.

A second complaint letter on November 4, noted that the FFRF had not received an answer to its earlier letter included a second complaint.

“A concerned area resident has reported that Letcher Central High School has a bible verse on display in its locker room. The display says, ‘But the Lord is with me like a Mighty Warrior. Jeremiah 20:11,’” the second letter says.

Each letter outlined U.S. case-law about religious displays and refers to the First Amendment of the Constitution, which says in part that “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.” Courts have ruled repeatedly that while students are free to practice their religion in school, schools may not take any action that might be regarded as endorsing one religion over another. The letters asked that the displays be removed, but did not threaten legal action.

Superintendent Denise Yonts responded on Feb. 21 with a picture of the newly painted locker room.

“I received your letter requesting an update on the religious displays in Letcher County Schools. The bulletin board has been replaced, the Facebook post has been removed, and the locker room has been repainted,” Yonts wrote.

Some comments have been critical of an “outsider” making the complaint, saying that the person who complained should have said something, however Line said in a telephone interview that people often are afraid of retribution from others in the community when challenging religious displays.

“We deal with that a lot, and that’s why we have the policy of keeping complaints anonymous,” Line said.

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