Lauderdale County Superintendent of Education Bill Valentine said his school district’s position on Christian prayer being offered via public address before football games focuses on one thing: abiding by the law.
Valentine and school district attorney James Irby drafted a formal response Monday to a recent complaint that prayers over stadium loudspeakers invoking the name of Jesus Christ are in violation of the First Amendment.
The letter to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which led the charge to stop public prayer on behalf of Lauderdale County resident Jeremy Green, said the school district will not use the public address system to establish, lead, direct, organize or encourage prayer.
“We’re not just doing this in response to this organization, but as a result of researching the law and realizing that the decision had already been made through court cases,” Valentine said. “There will no longer be prayers over the PA system at football games, but we’re not going beyond that at this point.”
The foundation sent two letters calling for the prayers to cease. The first came in September, the second Oct. 17.
Foundation attorney, Stephanie Schmitt, said her organization recognizes the difference between truly student-initiated prayer and school-sanctioned prayer.
“Prayer over the public address system is the school providing the forum for that activity,” Schmitt said. “I don’t see this requiring a court ruling because the courts have already said it can’t be happening.”
Schmitt had not received the district’s official response as of Monday afternoon but said if school system officials agree with her organization about the constitutionality of the issue, “then it’s over as far as we’re concerned.”
Specifically, the federal courts have struck down prayer in public schools saying it constitutes government endorsement of religion — violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Valentine said he refuses to tell his employees to break the law, no matter how strong his personal opinion is on an issue.
“It’s apparent that what we’ve been doing is in violation to Supreme Court decisions,” Valentine said. “Some say, ‘don’t quit fighting,’ but it’s not a fight we can win. It’s already been fought.”
In a 1989 case against the Douglas County (Ga.) School District in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, the ruling was that when a religious invocation is given via a sound system controlled by school principals and at a school-owned facility, the conclusion is inescapable that the religious invocation conveys a message that the school endorses the religious invocation. The ruling further states that taxpayer funds are used to pay the operating costs for the stadium lights and public address system and therefore, “We hold that the practice of beginning these games with an invocation violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Valentine said Brooks High School has been at the center of the controversy, but all Lauderdale schools were targeted in the complaint.
“I suspect all our communities will handle this in the way they see fit,” Valentine said. “Communities can and will find their own ways to deal with this. We don’t need to lose focus on why we attend these events — to support our kids.”
Brooks athletic supporters say they did become the focus, perhaps because of their willingness to stand up for what they believe to be right.
“We’re supposed to have freedom of religion, but really, do we?” said Teresa Robertson, the parent of a Brooks graduate and a freshman at the school. “Kids want to pray and they’re told they can’t. I understand perfectly that the superintendent must follow the law. And, I agree that it’s up to the community to find the solution.”
The solution, at least for the foreseeable future — beginning with Friday night’s game against Dora — is for the fans, donning Pray with BHS T-shirts, to join with the football team in prayer on the field before the game.
“The law isn’t on the side of the praying Christian community but we must follow the law,” she said. “I believe, wholeheartedly, that if anything good can come from something bad, kids will lead it.”
Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.
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