Under threat of lawsuit, Bell County ends tradition of prayer before football games

email to wisconsin-based foundation led to stopping tradition

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 24, 2011 

Bullitt East versus Bell County

Former Bell County Coach Dudley Hilton led the team in prayer following the Bobcats' Class 4A championship game against Bullitt East in Louisville in December 2008.

JONATHAN PALMER

Bell County school officials have ended the tradition of having a minister lead prayer over the public-address system before high school football games because of a complaint from a Wisconsin-based group that promotes the separation of church and state.

Friday's home game against Lexington Catholic was the first in decades that didn't include a prayer before the game, said Bell County Superintendent George Thompson.

"People were kind of jolted when we did the National Anthem and then kicked off" without the prayer, Thompson said.

With its many conservative churchgoing Christians, Kentucky has been fertile ground for clashes over the separation of church and state, most notably about posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

It was in a Kentucky case that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down posting stand-alone copies of the Commandments in public schools in 1980.

In 2005, another Kentucky case that reached the nation's high court dealt with how local governments could post copies of the biblical laws alongside other documents, so that the display does not have the primary effect of endorsing religion.

A federal judge ordered two Kentucky counties to pay the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky more than $400,000 in that case because it won a challenge to the counties' Commandments displays.

The complaint in Bell County came by way of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis.

The foundation says it represents the views of non-believers and works against government endorsing or promoting religion.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, its co-president, said the foundation received an email Aug. 5 about the prayer before Bell County High football games.

"All in attendance are asked to bow their head and the prayers have Christian overtones. Please check out this clear violation," said the email, which Gaylor provided.

Nearly all the complaints to the foundation are anonymous because people fear retaliation if they are identified, Gaylor said.

Rebecca S. Markert, an attorney for the foundation, sent a letter to Thompson Aug. 9, citing federal court rulings against prayer at school functions such as football games.

"The prayers at the football games constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion," Markert said in the letter.

The letter, which said the foundation has more than 125 members in the state, demanded an end to the prayers.

Thompson said he sought guidance on the issue from the school district's attorney and the state Education Department.

Thompson said the department notified him last week that the prayer at the football game ran afoul of federal-court rulings.

The department said the school system would lose if someone sued over the issue, said Thompson, a former coach.

"It's one of those things, you really have nowhere to go," he said.

The district is looking into replacing the prayer with a moment of silence.

Thompson said he didn't make an announcement before Friday's game that there wouldn't be a prayer because he didn't want any adverse reaction to detract from the players and the game.

But the reaction started pouring in over the weekend.

"Folks were pretty upset about it," he said. "Facebook has gone wild."

The Rev. Ray Stepp, pastor of Molus Pentecostal Church in neighboring Harlan County, had led the pre-game public prayer for 18 to 20 years, said his wife, Sandra Stepp.

She talked with the Herald-Leader because her husband has trouble hearing on the telephone.

The couple's two sons played football at Bell County in the 1990s.

Stepp prayed for the players to have a safe game and for protection for U.S. troops, and he usually prayed for everyone in the audience to attend church, his wife said.

She said she and her husband, and many fans at the game, were disappointed about the traditional prayer being canceled.

Stepp said she understood two families objected.

There are far more who support the prayer, she said.

"It's sad that one person or two can stop this when there are so many of us wanting this," she said of the prayer.

Officials with the foundation said the issue is that it violates the law for a government body, such as the school system, to promote religion.

The foundation has been active in Kentucky, making 11 formal complaints to government bodies this year about issues such as prayers at school-sponsored events, Markert said.

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