A group that works against government endorsement of religion has renewed a complaint about prayers before Bell County High School home football games.
In a letter last week to Superintendent Yvonne Gilliam, the Freedom From Religion Foundation warned the school board against allowing a prayer before the season opener Friday night against Middlesboro.
A foundation complainant who was at the game in southeastern Kentucky said there was a student-led Christian prayer, according to Rebecca Markert, an attorney for the organization based in Madison, Wis.
Market said Monday the foundation would evaluate whether to send a follow-up complaint or sue, or both.
"Scheduling prayer at a school-sponsored event is a flagrant violation of the law," Markert said in the letter.
Joe Humfleet, who heads the high school football booster club, said he hoped the school system wouldn't bow to a complaint from a few people about something many people support. He said there was a "big eruption of happiness" after students were given time to speak Friday night.
"We need to go on with what's right," Humfleet said.
Bell County High had a long custom of letting a Christian minister lead a prayer before football games before 2011, when the foundation complained to then-Superintendent George Thompson about the practice.
The foundation says it represents the views of non-believers and works to protect the constitutional separation of church and state.
The school ended the pregame prayer after Thompson said the state Education Department advised him the practice ran afoul of federal-court rulings barring government endorsement of religion.
Humfleet said the issue came up again at a recent booster club meeting. Many people have thought it was a shame not to have a prayer before the games, he said.
"We're letting the minority dictate what we do," Humfleet said. "It's not right morally, and it's not right by our American way."
Many other schools have prayers before games, Humfleet said.
Gilliam, the superintendent, said that when booster club members asked her about reinstating the prayers, she said the request would have to come from students. The next day, she had a request from 10 to 20 students, Gilliam said. On Aug. 18, the board approved Humfleet's request to reinstate the pregame prayer time.
Markert said people upset by the decision contacted the foundation.
Gilliam said the school system made it clear that the prayer would have to be initiated and led by students.
She said the school would have no involvement. In fact, she said before Friday's game that the students would have to make arrangements for a portable public-address system because they wouldn't be allowed to use the one at the stadium.
"They're basically on their own," Gilliam said. "All we're doing is allowing students the freedom of expression if they so choose."
Gilliam said a local radio station provided a public-address system for the girl who gave the prayer.
Humfleet said he couldn't hear the prayer, but he bowed his head and said his own prayer.
Bell County won the game, 41-7. Humfleet's son, running back Treyton Humfleet, scored four touchdowns in the first half.
Markert said the school was not off the hook just because the students didn't use the stadium loudspeaker.
That's because allowing time for a prayer, even one led by students, is an improper official endorsement of religion, she argued.
Markert's letter to Gilliam cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said prayer at a school-sponsored function would lead an objective person to perceive the prayer as an official endorsement of religion.
Market also said it didn't matter if only a few people objected, because the Constitution protects their rights.
"The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion," she said.
Gilliam, however, said Monday that she did not anticipate the district making any changes because of the foundation's complaint. "We're trying to do everything legally," she said.
The foundation has filed other complaints recently in Kentucky.
It sent a letter this month to Breathitt County Judge-Executive John Lester Smith, asking him to take down a large portrait of Jesus in the courthouse, arguing it gives the impression Christianity is the government's favored religion.
The foundation also has asked more than 30 police agencies around the country, including the Greenup County Sheriff's Office, to remove "In God We Trust" decals from patrol vehicles.
Kentucky has been at the forefront of clashes over the separation of church and state.
Two court battles over posting copies of the Ten Commandments in public helped set nationwide precedents, and the state is now in the national spotlight as Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis cites religious objections in her fight to avoid having to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a Supreme Court decision legalizing those marriages.