The Pikeville Independent School District is under scrutiny from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) after representatives say the organization received complaints from a community member following the Pikeville High School Class of 2020′s graduation program.
According to a statement from the FFRF, a foundation devoted to the separation of church and state, a concerned citizen reached out after three students from the graduating class led prayers during the school’s July graduation.
In a letter to the district, the Wisconsin-based foundation said the decision to allow those prayers “alienates the 38% of younger Americans who are not religious,” adding that the district has a duty to remain neutral where religion is concerned.
“These prayers were exclusively Christian in nature, including language such as ‘Oh Heavenly Father,’ ‘In your son’s name, we pray’ and thanks to the ‘Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,’ as well as warnings of the ‘war on the Christian faith,'” said a statement from the FFRF. “The Supreme Court has continually struck down religious rituals and prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations."
The statement continued to say the district’s attorney responded to the concerns, assuring them he “advised the principal to refrain from religious prayer at future graduations.” A response that FFRF representatives were delighted to see.
“The culmination of 13 years of secular education should end not in divisive and exclusionary prayer, but in a celebration that welcomes all students and participants,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in the statement. “We’re confident that Pikeville Independent Schools will keep its word and won’t subject its graduating class to prayers.”
Brendan Johnson, Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow for the FFRF told WYMT the letter, which he penned, was about the district’s duty to be neutral, not the students' decisions to practice a specific religion.
“We are not trying to stop people from practicing their religion. I wouldn’t want to live in a country where people weren’t free to practice as they please. I don’t think anybody would," Johnson said. "We’re just trying to prevent the government from taking sides and giving its power and stamp of approval to certain religions over others, or over the prospect of not being religious at all.”
Pikeville Independent Schools Superintendent David Trimble said the district has been working with its legal team to determine the best route for future events.
“Make sure that we’re doing things the appropriate way while also protecting the freedoms and rights of those who are involved in them," he said.
He said, though student-led prayer was incorporated in the event, the Christian quotes mentioned in the letter from the FFRF were largely credited to a speech given by one of the students, not a public prayer.
“Some speeches that took place that were not part of prayers at all,” he said. “So, that’s where there are some lines there as to what is freedom of speech and what is okay to be said."
But Johnson said the prayer and religious speeches in a school-sanctioned event are not covered by the First Amendment speech analysis.
“A public graduation is not the same as a public forum," said Johnson. “Everything is sort of given an appearance of officiality by the government itself. So, we argue that it’s improper to have sectarian prayer at these events.”
The event, Trimble said, has always been student-led, and the district tries to honor the freedoms granted to each student.
“For us, for 150 years now this has been a student-led ceremony,” he said. “The involvement of any adults is simply saying the names, confirming the class, and giving the perfect attendance award and handing diplomas. Other than that it is completely student-led and student-involved."
With the next graduation so far away, he said he believes the district will have time to work on the structure and decide what best works for all students without impeding on anyone’s rights.
He said the district has not received any complaints, outside of the letter, about the graduation.
“The only discussion at all that we even had from it was the letter that we received,” he said. “We have never had anyone contact our office or anything such as that.”
But he said the district’s primary concern is always the safety and inclusion of all of its students- on both sides of the conversation.
“We always want people to be comfortable. We always want people to know that’s important to us," Trimble said. “However, it also is very important that we protect the rights and the freedoms of our students and those who are involved in that graduation ceremony."