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Prayer over loudspeaker temporarily halted in school district after atheist group complains

An Ohio school district temporarily halted prayers over the loudspeaker before athletic games after the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national atheist group, sent a complaint letter to district officials last month. (Image source: YouTube screenshot)

An Ohio school district temporarily halted loudspeaker prayer before athletic games after the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national atheist group, sent a complaint letter to district officials last month, the Vindicator reported.

“One of our complainants reports that a recent varsity basketball game [on Jan. 5] at West Branch High School a prayer was delivered over the loudspeaker after the national anthem was played," the Jan. 18 letter to West Branch Schools states, the paper said. "It was reported that all in attendance were asked to remain standing for this prayer and that the prayer was Christian in nature.”

What did the district superintendent have to say?

Superintendent Tim Saxton said all prayers were stopped upon receiving the complaint and the district is in contact with its lawyer, the Vindicator reported.

“We recognize that while some find this prayer before events offensive, the West Branch community cherishes this practice and the rich history that goes along with it,” Saxton wrote in a Jan. 19 letter to the community, the paper said.

Saxton said he's hopeful that he and the school board can come up with a resolution prior to Thursday's home basketball game, the Vindicator reported.

What has been the response from the public?

Saxton told the paper he's received some complaints about the absence of the prayers.

“We have to abide by policy and according to the law, but at same time we don’t want to take away something held in such high esteem here," he told the Vindicator. "We want to be both following the law and living up to the standards of the community.”

Parent Craig Brown teaches American politics at Kent State University and told the paper the decision to temporarily halt the prayers may have been too hasty.

“From the legal and constitutional perspective, it is important to know that when we talk about separating church and state we aren’t talking about a brick wall,” Brown added to the Vindicator. “It’s more like a chain link fence. No one intended to completely eliminate the influences of religion from governmental or public life.”

But Brown also told the paper it’s important the district doesn’t “openly and officially recognize or legitimize one religion over another.”

“The concern of the board and their focus needs to be one of consideration to minority faiths or even lack of faith," he added to the Vindicator. “That being said, any school representatives must welcome all prayers of all faiths and make it clear this is their policy.”

Dawn Otlowski Fende, a parent of a Christian family, told the paper she wants the prayers to continue.

“We ... will continue to pray at any moment we feel it’s needed — including [at] school,” she told the Vindicator. “We feel it’s a small way to keep our community uniformed. This feels like a way to separate our community.”

What did the Freedom From Religion Foundation have to say?

“As of now we do know the district has put a stop to the prayer before athletic games, which we think is the correct solution,” Rebecca Markert, FFRF legal director, told the paper. “We are confident [West Branch Schools] will understand they cannot do this practice anymore and it will cease.”

Markert added to the Vindicator she doesn't expect the FFRF will have to take further action.

What does the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio have to say?

“Usually a school talks to their attorney and comes back saying the prayer will no longer take place,” Elizabeth Bonham, ACLU of Ohio staff attorney, told the paper. “We rarely ever have to take it to court because the law is so clear. ... The law is very clear what is allowed and what is not, and school-sponsored activities should be free from religious affiliations.”

What else has the Freedom From Religion Foundation been doing related to schools?

  • It sent a legal notice to an Indiana school district telling it to stop a pastor-led leadership program and calling it a violation of the Establishment Clause, but the district fired back saying the FFRF had its facts wrong, that the pastors weren't leading religious instruction and that the program wouldn't stop.
  • A “concerned local community member” told the FFRF that a Georgia high school football coach “had made it a habit to pray with his team,” which prompted an FFRF complaint letter. But after the controversy hit, prayer among students exploded.
  • It demanded an Alabama high school marching band cease it’s “religious” halftime performances at football games. The school said it would consider removing some props but that the show would remain the same.
  • It demanded a Texas high school remove a Christian flag flying on campus — which was met by some students flying the same flag from their vehicles in the school parking lot.
  • It demanded a different Alabama high school stop loudspeaker prayers at football games. But after the school complied, students ended up praying out loud in the stands.

(H/T: Truth Revolt)

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