Monroe County School board confronts prayer issue

By Alice Ortiz/Monroe Journal

AMORY – Over 20 people attended the Monroe County School Board meeting on Oct. 6 to question the board and superintendent of education about their decision not to have a prayer before the football game on Friday, Sept. 30.

The crowd was too large for the conference room and the meeting was moved to the courtroom in the Monroe County Government Complex.

Monroe County Superintendent of Education Scott Cantrell read a prepared statement that the school board had been forced to render a decision prohibiting prayer over the intercom at football games.

He also referred to a school prayer policy that was adopted September 2000.

Don Self, a board member, gave a little background on the policy of September 2000. He said his dad was on the school board and he (Don) had been announcing at Hamilton and gave the invocation before a game. A man told his dad he had heard about it and that they would lose their federal funding if the prayers continued.

“How do you have people in power tell a county based on Christian values that we can’t pray?” Self asked.

This policy came about from the Supreme Court’s decision in the Sante Fe School District vs. Doe, where the court held that the policy allowing the student-led prayer at the football games was unconstitutional. In a 6-3 vote, it held that these pre-game prayers delivered on school property, at school-sponsored events, over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer are not private, but public speech. Regardless of the listener’s support for, or objection to, the message, an objective Santa Fe High School student will unquestionably perceive the inevitable pregame prayer as stamped with her school’s seal of approval.

Cantrell stated that when he received the letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation about not having prayer before a football game, he contacted the board members and all were upset over the letter stating they were not to have prayer. “We were immediately concerned about our legal situation if we allowed the prayers. If the school district allowed prayer, we were endorsing it.”

Cantrell checked with legal counsel and was told that if various community pastors or students prayed over a school-controlled PA system, they would have no defense in court.

“It pained all school board members to make that decision,” said Cantrell. “From our attorney’s viewpoint, the days of prayer at school events are over.”

Cantrell stated that the Monroe County School District will follow the law as set forth by the Supreme Court, but the district will also support the right of student to pray.

“Please try to understand our situation,” he said. “We have not told your kids, and won’t, that they can’t pray, as long as we are doing to the letter of the law.”

Board President Mickey Miller said, “We don’t like it, can’t stand it, but they have us over a barrel. We were advised that if they sue us, we will lose.”

Phillip Lindsey, pastor of Bartahatchie Baptist Church, said he regretted the board having to make that decision, but he thanked them for what they had to do.

“I have been on the phone with Mr. Cantrell and told him I support your decision and I don’t want to get you in trouble,” said Lindsey. “But I am going to do all I can do to see that prayer is not totally eliminated.amp”

Another local pastor, Tommy Whaley, asked about the Meeting at the Pole. He was told by Superintendent Cantrell that they could meet. “I am afraid that people will do something crazy,” said Whaley. “We need to stop and think before we condemn and tear down. We don’t need to be acting like radicals and not Christians.amp”

Bradley Williams, youth minister at River Bend Baptist Church, told the board he respected their decision. He said as Christians everyone should unite.

“I have been researching the Freedom From Religion group on their Facebook page today,” Williams stated. “They are atheists, have no religion and don’t want anyone else to have it. We need to kill them with kindness.”

Monroe County resident Wayne Childress said he had three kids that graduated in Monroe County Schools. “Our rights are being taken away,” Childress said. “At some point we need to take a stand. This is a small community and a small town, we can’t stand by and let our rights be taken away.”

Board member Butch Palmer said he had talked to American Family Association and they had referred him to attorneys in Lynchburg, Va., and he was told that Monroe County School District did not have enough money to go to court with the Freedom From Religion people.

Hamilton High student Richard Clay said, “We are surrendering to Satan. I know this is tough on you as a board, but the power of prayer is an amazing thing. We can win regardless. You don’t mess with men and women of God. As a student, I want to stand up. Students need to stand up, but as role models, so do adults.”

Steven Sims asked if scriptures could be read over the PA system. “When we first discussed this on Thursday, Sept. 29, we said we’d do it and take our chances,” said Self. “Don’t you feel like we are denying Christ for the welfare of the students? I am speaking personally here. Do we jeopardize the Monroe County Schools? Christians have to stand up.amp”

Board members Linda Bickerstaff and Ann Price told the group the board was held by laws and had policies. It was a policy they did not like. They said nobody could keep people from praying. They told the group they appreciated their prayers and encouragement.

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