Ohio Community Defies Atheist Group's Threat With Public Prayer at High School Football Game

Cheerleaders at the Licking Valley High School in Newark, Oh. hold up the team banner before the school's football team storms through it.
Cheerleaders at the Licking Valley High School in Newark, Oh. hold up the team banner before the school's football team storms through it. | (Photo: Facebook)

An Ohio community sent a message to the atheist advocacy group Freedom From Religion Foundation Friday night as community members made it known ahead of time that they would hold a large public prayer following the completion of the local public high school football game.

In response to the Licking Valley School District receiving two separate letters within a week from Freedom From Religion Foundation condemning the school district for not doing enough to enforce the removal of religion in public schools, community members told the Newark Advocate that they are planning a public gathering for prayer following the Licking Valley High School football game tonight.

Licking Valley's game against visiting Watkins Memorial was the high school's first home football game since the school district received letters on Sept. 23 and Sept. 30. The letters addressed "religious messages" displayed on t-shirts worn by the high school's marching band and scolded the school's football coaches for participating in team prayers.

"It's just a peaceful demonstration, just to say, 'You can send you letters, but there's a band of Christians that love the Lord and support their boys,'" the local resident organizing the prayer, Melanie Fitzgerald-Klein, said.

Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter on Sept. 23 was in response to the high school's marching band wearing t-shirts with the word "Salvation" written on the front of them while they performed at the annual Sweet Corn Festival in nearby Millersport.

Even though the band's focal piece for the year is "Salvation is Created" by Pavel Tchesnokov, the atheist advocacy group states that allowing the marching band to "display religious messages" unconstitutionally "entangles the school with religion." The letter continues by stating that the shirts forgo parental rights to chose the religious upbringing for their child.

"Even if the t-shirts were only intended to reference the song by Pavel Tchesnokov, such a display would nonetheless be constitutionally objectionable," the letter states. "The word 'salvation,' and the song 'Salvation is Created' (itself based on Psalm: 74) cannot be divorced of their religious implications."

In the letter addressed on Sept. 30, FFRF informed the school district that it was waiting for a response to its original letter and continued to say that the district had again violated the Constitution.

The letter stated that Licking Valley head football coach, Randy Baughman, and other members of the coaching staff were bowing their heads while a student led the team in prayer. The group said they had found out about this through a picture they had seen on the team's Facebook page. The letter also urged the school district to take action to "ensure that coaches do not lead, organize, invite, encourage or participate in prayers."

"While students may wish to engage in prayer on their own, school staff including coaches, cannot participate or encourage such religious activities," the letter states. "Furthermore, a public school coach's participation in a team's prayer circle is illegal and inappropriate. Federal courts have specifically held public school coaches' participation in their team's prayer circles unconstitutional."

The school district superintendent, Dave Hile, said he has not responded to either letter. He added that while he heard rumors of the prayer, the prayer is not school sponsored. Even though the plan is to have the prayer center around midfield, the school would prefer it if the community stays off the field.

"We don't really want anyone on the field," Hile said. "There is no reason for them to come on the field."

In September, cheerleaders from a Tennessee public high school led a whole high school stadium in reciting the Lord's Prayer before the start of the school's football game after efforts from the Freedom From Relgion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union tried to get the school to ban its pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker.

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