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Superintendent reviews schools’ policies, explains decision

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By Meaghan Downs

Superintendent Sheila Mitchell is currently reviewing district policies on all religious activities following legal guidance from the state and the school district’s attorney.
Mitchell said she sought legal counsel after the ACLU of KY sent letters to superintendents in August asking for the district to stop Gideons International from handing out Bibles during school hours or face potential litigation.
Anderson County students, staff and parents learned last week that coaches, teachers and other staff would not be allowed to lead prayer before, during or after extracurricular activities.
In response to the change hundreds of students, parents, coaches and fans gathered on the football field for a moment of silence following the Bearcat victory.
Football players also asked Al Peach, the father of head coach Mark Peach and dressed as Elvis for the Bearcat home opener, to lead the team in prayer.
“After receiving a request from Coach Peach to employ a volunteer chaplain to hold the pre- and post-game prayer, I sought counsel advice as I had just received the ACLU threat of litigation and the advice sent from Kentucky Department of Education, Commissioner Holliday’s office,” Mitchell said in an e-mail.   
“Our attorney, Bob Chenoweth, advised that staff organized prayer would violate state law as based on case law sighted in KDE’s recommendations,” Mitchell said. “He also advised that student-led prayer organized by staff would also be considered a violation.  
“However, as the recommendations provided by the state also remind us, 1st Amendment rights are always protected. Students can meet before and after school or school events to hold prayer. They can also pray during the school day or events if they so choose. School staff will not interfere with students’ 1st Amendment rights.”
Mitchell asked that the Kentucky Department of Education’s written legal guidance — which lists legal recommendations on prayer and the distribution of religious material — be posted to the district’s website on Sept. 5.
Mitchell said she has not made any decisions, as of Sept. 6, on new policies or procedures, though she may allow Gideons International Bibles to be available on tables before or after school for students to pick up if they choose.
Prayer walks are scheduled before or after school, and Mitchell said she has made no plans to change the procedure for holding prayer walks at schools.   
KDE’s legal recommendations state that school board meetings that begin with a prayer is a violation of federal law, but school board members began their special-called meeting on tax rates with a prayer last Wednesday night, the same day Mitchell met with the district’s attorney.
Mitchell said she did not have time to speak with each individual board member about meeting with the district attorney or to notify them of the Kentucky Department of Education’s counsel.
As for opening school board meetings with prayer in the future, Mitchell said she’d leave that decision up to individual school board members.
No school board members returned phone calls for comment as of press time.
ACLU of KY Communications Manager Amber Duke said the ACLU does not consider student-led prayer held before or after a football game to be in violation of federal law or considered unconstitutional.
She said the ACLU of KY has not received any complaints about the events of last Friday’s gathering of students and football fans after the game. A complaint from the Anderson County community would lead the ACLU to investigate what happened last Friday night, Duke said, but the ACLU currently had no plans to do so.
“We haven’t received any complaints about the situation that’s happened with the football team and of course, we haven’t had any contact with the superintendent regarding her policy,” Duke said.
“Generally, the ACLU believes that when it comes to religious freedom, [students’] religious education should be directed by their families, parents and religious community and not the public schools.
“At the same time, the ACLU has done a lot of work to protect public schools’ faith within the school setting.
“If students wanted to led a prayer before the game, we would defend those students’ free speech rights … there are times when religion at school is appropriate.
“Public schools themselves should not be in the business of promoting particular religious beliefs or particular religious activities.”
Mitchell said contacted school board members individually about the ACLU letter, but has no plans to institute changes on religious policies in an open school board meeting.  
“If policies are to be implemented as based on ACLU recommendations, I will work with the board to create those policies,” Mitchell said via e-mail. “However, at this time, I have made no plans to discuss policies with the board in open meeting.”