The foundation that has drawn attention to school-sanctioned prayer in Hampshire and Mineral counties has responded to criticism from Republican Delegate Gary Howell, whose district covers most of Mineral County.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter last month to Mineral County Superintendent Troy Ravenscroft about a group prayer involving the Hampshire and Frankfort football players and coaches in late October.
Shortly after the letter became public, Howell issued a press release calling it “snowflake political correctness run amok” and asserting that coaches and players have a “sacred right” to pray during games with their players.
“Just because this organization believes that the separation of church and state — words that are not in the Constitution, by the way — means that we must exclude all public displays of religious expression, that does not mean others must abide by their beliefs,” Howell wrote.
The foundation took exception to Howell’s characterization, writing him and publicly releasing parts of its response.
The foundation pointed out to Ravenscroft in its original letter that public schools coaches are not allowed to lead or participate in prayers with their teams when they are acting in their official capacity as district employees, as it constitutes a government endorsement of religion.
The Supreme Court has upheld that ruling more than once.
“When the government can coerce, demand or even recommend or initiate that an American pray in a certain way or on a certain day, the religious freedom we all hold most dear is violated,” the foundation wrote to Howell.
The foundation also noted that courts have ruled that government employees, such as coaches, may not legally wield the authority of their positions to push religious practices.
“Students are free to pray in public schools so long as they don’t disrupt the education of others,” foundation attorney Brendan Johnson wrote. “When they are told to pray, or when coaches make it clear that they want students to pray, the religious freedom of those students has been violated by the government.”
The Mineral County administration told the foundation that it would investigate the claims and viewed the incident as “an opportunity to work with staff and athletic coaches on observing and upholding the First Amendment, its boundaries and requirements.”