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Threatened litigation by the ACLU over Bible distribution in schools and a change to post-game prayer at high school football games sparked one of the most passionate and controversial debates to hit Anderson County in recent memory, and deserves first place for 2013.
The conversation over religious speech really began at the end of August, when all superintendents in the state received letters from the American Civil Liberties Union of KY over the common practice of allowing Gideons International to pass out Bibles during school hours.
After the ACLU expressed it would pursue litigation if they found the practice continuing, school districts — including Anderson County — re-examined their policies on religious speech.
Superintendents received legal advice from the state education department about the issue, including recommendations that teachers or public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible or other religious activities.
The state education department also cited a court case in its guidance, which stated school boards who open meetings in prayer violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
Superintendent Sheila Mitchell consulted with the district’s attorney about the tradition of coach-led prayers at football games, and was told that staff-led prayer or student-led prayer organized by staff would be in violation of state law.
After explaining to his team that he could no longer organize team prayers, coach Mark Peach stood aside as his players lead their own post-game prayer and were joined by hundreds of worshipful but clearly agitated parents, students and fans following a varsity football game held in early September.
Peach learned of the decision handed down by school Superintendent Sheila Mitchell on Sept. 4. He informed the team of the decision after practice that day.
“I was just shocked,” said Nathan McGregor, a sophomore lineman, said after the Sept. 6 game. “We had been praying after practice every day and after every game. I was shocked because that was a part of my life.”
Three bodies of elected officials — the school board, city council and fiscal court — all traditionally opened their meetings with prayer.
The spokesperson for the ACLU of KY stated that elected officials who open public meetings in prayer are in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
Attorneys for the city council and fiscal court disagreed.
“I don’t believe that for a second,” City Attorney Robert Myles said in the Sept. 11 issue of the newspaper, referring to legal opinion that prayer at public meetings violates the Establishment Clause. “I believe the ACLU is wrong in this instance and they are flat wrong in the interpretation they are giving. While I have genuine respect for the ACLU and what they do, I strongly disagree in this instance.”
County Attorney Bobbi Jo Lewis, who provides legal council to the fiscal court and occasional assistance to the board of health and fire district, agreed.