A Kentucky high school has defied an atheist group's demand that the school keep prayer out of its pre-football game festivities, as the school kicked off its 2015 football season with a student-led invocation last Friday.
Prior to August 2011, Bell County High School practiced a long-standing tradition of letting a Christian pastor lead in a pre-game prayer over the stadium's public-address system as a way of asking God to keep the student-athletes safe.
But after the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation's largest atheist organization, filed a complaint with the school district's then-Superintendent George Thompson, and threatened to file a lawsuit, school officials decided to end the prayer tradition to avoid costly litigation.
FFRF was successful in keeping prayer out of Bell County High's athletics events for nearly four years. But as the Bell County Bobcats geared up for their season opener against the Middlesboro Yellowjackets on Aug. 21, local news outlets reported that students and a faculty member had started a petition to reintroduce the pre-game prayer tradition during the 2015 football season.
The petition cites the First Amendment, which protects both the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. The Bell County Board of Education took the petition into account and agreed to allow a student to lead in a pre-game prayer over the public-address system.
"It's been a long-standing tradition here at Bell County High School that there be prayer at the football games. Then there was obviously someone who was opposed to it," Bell County High teacher Samantha Johnson told WKYT. "The prayers were simply usually praying over the players and their safety. There was nothing offensive in the prayers."
Prior to Bell County's 41-7 week one victory, a student lead the audience in prayer. But for one FFRF complainant in attendance, the prayer was uncalled for.
"Scheduling prayer at a school-sponsored event is a flagrant violation of the law," FFRF attorney Rebecca Markert wrote in a letter to the school district. "Given the clear legal precedent on this issue, it is surprising — not to mention baffling — that the school board would knowingly violate the law and bring back prayer before athletic games."
FFRF sent a letter to the school district's current Superintendent, Yvonne Gilliam, after the school board made the decision to reinstate pre-game prayer at football games, which argued that even student-led prayer over the public-address system violates the law.
"The Supreme Court specifically struck down student-led invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school football games, because the games are school-sponsored events conducted on school property," the FFRF argued in a statement.
Markert added that FFRF is still weighing the next course of action that it plans to take to address the school's defiance of the organization's demand.
Although representatives from FFRF are unhappy about prayer returning to Bell County, the head of the school's football booster club, Joe Humfleet, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the school community was excited for the student-led prayer and added that the pre-game invocation was greeted with a "big eruption of happiness."
Humfleet explained that the request to bring back pre-game prayers first came up during a booster club meeting. When booster club members asked Gilliam about a possible return of pre-game prayer, Gilliam explained that the request had to come from students. The next day, Gilliam received requests from 10 to 20 students.
"We're letting the minority dictate what we do. It's not right morally, and it's not right by our American way," Humfleet asserted. "We need to go on with what's right,"
Bell County student Hannah Belcher told WKYT that the prayer is necessary.
"It's a way to hope for the better and talk to God," Belcher said. "That's something that everybody needs to do."