Tensions mount in flap over prayers at West Branch


By Amanda Tonoli

atonoli@vindy.com

West Branch School district

BELOIT

Some West Branch Schools students say their academic environment has become tense after the district curtailed prayer before athletic events in January.

“It’s kind of like a civil war,” said senior student Mikayla Barker. “Some students are against [praying at school] and a majority are for it. The tension at school is at an all-time high for everyone.”

The district halted prayer before athletic events after receiving a letter Jan. 18 from the Freedom From Religion Foundation stating the practice is unconstitutional.

In response, parents and community members have been taking sides. Some have made T-shirts that read “Prayer Matters” featuring the school’s Indians mascot. Others designed shirts seeking an all-inclusive environment featuring “Coexist” spelled by using symbols of many religions. It also sports the Warriors’ logo.

Students say they can feel the divide.

“Lately it’s been [said] ‘Don’t come to the games then if you don’t want to pray’ or ‘The majority of the school is Christian, so we’re not changing for you,’” Barker said.

This pressure is coming from social media harassment and even members of some sports teams, Barker maintained.

“The most common thing that’s being said is that if we can find our way in the door to come to the games and we don’t like the prayer, we can find our way out,” added fellow senior student Addie Morris.

Superintendent Tim Saxton said he has not been informed of any bullying in the schools tied to the controversy.

He encouraged community members, students and parents alike to “maintain a level head” and be patient while the administration works to find a solution.

“It’s a very touchy subject sometimes in regards to something we feel is important,” Saxton said. “We want to do the right thing; we want to do what’s important to students and the community.”

Although Morris is aware of the sensitivity required in handling such a hot-button issue, she said dissenters shouldn’t be pressured to believe in anything or have their opinions cast aside.

“After the prayer ban occurred, there was obviously a strong Christian-based opinion,” she said. “It just doesn’t seem fair to me or other students, who may be a minority, whether they believe in a different religion or have no religious preferences at all.

“And I do understand that Christianity is incredibly prominent in our community, but that doesn’t mean the minority opinions and beliefs don’t/shouldn’t matter.”

Barker said West Branch is a district unique for what may not be a good reason.

“I’m not sure if [the community] value[s] the tradition or if they truly value prayer,” she said.

Saxton said he hopes to find a solution to the ongoing controversy within the next 24 to 48 hours.

“I respect the opinions of everyone involved, and like I’ve said before, I would remind everyone patience goes a long way,” he said.

Rebecca Markert, FFRF legal director, said the best course of action would be to just cease the action of prayer completely.

“Usually a school talks to their attorney and comes back saying the prayer will no longer take place,” she said. “We rarely ever have to take it to court because the law is so clear. ... The law is very clear what is allowed and what is not, and school-sponsored activities should be free from religious affiliations.”

On Jan. 30, Elizabeth Bonham, American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio staff attorney, told The Vindicator: “The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that it is impermissible for religious practices to take place during school-sponsored events.”

The original Jan. 18 letter from Freedom from Religion to the school district states: “One of our complainants reports that at a recent varsity basketball game [Jan. 5] at West Branch High School, a prayer was delivered over the loudspeaker after the national anthem was played. It was reported that all in attendance were asked to remain standing for this prayer and that the prayer was Christian in nature.”

In her view, “Religion is a private view and act and should not be brought into schools,” senior student Katie Mikes said.

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