FRANKFORT — A state lawyer's recommendation that the Bell County school district stop allowing prayer over the public-address system at football games has sparked controversy in Kentucky's gubernatorial election.
Republican David Williams, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear in the Nov. 8 election, urged Beshear in a news release Friday "to denounce this attack on prayer at public functions and lead the efforts of state government to defend our citizens' right to voluntarily pray anywhere they choose."
Williams' campaign on Friday released an email from the state Department of Education to the Bell County school district that said praying before a football game is unconstitutional and the district should "cease this activity immediately."
The email, which cited several court decisions regarding prayer and schools, was written by assistant general counsel Amy Peabody on Aug. 16.
"Even beyond the fact that I believe that the alleged activity actually does constitute unconstitutional endorsement of religion, the effort and expenditure of funds required to defend this practice in litigation will greatly outweigh, and not serve the students of the school district, any perceived constitutional purpose in this activity," Peabody wrote.
Beshear's director of communications, Kerri Richardson, said Williams "should know that the Department of Education is an independent department that does not answer to the governor."
Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday, who oversees the Department of Education, reports to the Kentucky Board of Education, which is appointed by Beshear.
The Herald-Leader reported this week that Bell County school officials 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.
"It is a travesty that Gov. Beshear will not stand up for freedom of religion in Kentucky, and instead sides with an organization called 'Freedom From Religion Foundation,' " Williams said. "As governor, I will stand up against out-of-state liberal organizations who want to stomp on our freedom to voluntarily pray in public places."
Williams accused Beshear of having "a troubling history of failing to protect our precious freedom of religion."
He mentioned that Beshear, as attorney general, ruled that posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms was unconstitutional and that his administration in 2009 referred to the decorated tree on the Capitol lawn in December as a "holiday tree" and not a Christmas tree.
Beshear has said he was following the U.S. Supreme Court's guidance on the Ten Commandments issue. His administration later referred to the tree as a "Christmas tree."
Beshear has also come under criticism from those who support the separation of church and state for his administration's approval of tax incentives for a religious-themed amusement park in Northern Kentucky. Beshear has defended the incentives, saying the state cannot deny the application for the Ark Encounter park on religious grounds.
William Sharp, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said Friday that the Department of Education interpretation of the law regarding prayer in schools is correct. The constitutionality of prayer before sports events was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.
Sharp said that Bell County would lose if the case were challenged in court. The prayer was conducted over the public address system, and it was organized or condoned by school officials.
"It's about as clear as anything we deal with in terms of constitutional issues," Sharp said of prayer in public schools.
Losing such cases has proved to be very costly.
A federal judge recently ordered two Kentucky counties to pay the ACLU of Kentucky more than $400,000 after it won court challenges to the counties' Ten Commandments displays.
When asked whether he was willing to spend taxpayer's money to defend a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court has already said was unconstitutional, Williams said Beshear showed lack of leadership by not explaining to Bell County officials how to make the prayer comply with the law.
"There were two ways to handle this. One was to run up the white flag and surrender to the out-of-state group trying to shut down prayer in Kentucky. The other was for the Beshear administration to step in and offer advice on how the school district could comply with the law without gleefully delivering a stop-order to the good people of Bell County, who are simply trying to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of religion and speech," Williams said.
George Thompson, school superintendent in Bell County, said he was surprised Williams' campaign had made the pre-game prayer an issue in the governor's race.
"I'm amazed that it gets into the politics like that," he said. "Politics sometimes is an ugly animal, isn't it?"