West Branch gets flak for praying at athletic events


By Amanda Tonoli

atonoli@vindy.com

BELOIT

Having nothing in place of prayer during any school-sponsored event is the best course of action for West Branch Schools, Freedom From Religion Foundation’s legal director says.

“As of now we do know the district has put a stop to the prayer before athletic games, which we think is the correct solution,” said Rebecca Markert, FFRF legal director. “We are confident [West Branch Schools] will understand they cannot do this practice anymore and it will cease.”

FFRF of Madison, Wis., is a national nonprofit organization whose “purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church,” according to a Jan. 18 letter from Markert to West Branch Schools.

The district halted prayer before athletic games after receiving the Jan. 18 letter.

It states: “One of our complainants reports that a recent varsity basketball game [on 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.”

Elizabeth Bonham, American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio staff attorney, agreed with Markert by saying: “The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that it is impermissible for religious practices to take place during school-sponsored events.”

Tim Saxton, West Branch superintendent, said all prayers were stopped upon receiving the complaint and the district is in contact with its lawyer.

“We recognize that while some find this prayer before events offensive, the West Branch community cherishes this practice and the rich history that goes along with it,” Saxton said in a Jan. 19 letter to the community.

On Tuesday, Saxton said although he believes praying at certain athletic events is a long-standing tradition, he and the board of education are working together to come up with a solution that’s a best fit for everyone.

Since the prayers have been discontinued for the time being, Saxton said he has gotten a few complaints about their absence.

“We hear what everyone is saying and we understand their concerns, and as soon as we can come to resolution on this we will,” Saxton said. “We ask for their patience as we work through this. We have to abide by policy and according to the law, but at same time we don’t want to take away something held in such high esteem here. ... We want to be both following the law and living up to the standards of the community.”

Parent Craig Brown, who is also teaches American politics a Kent State University, said although he thinks the district’s response is typical when it comes to a school receiving such a complaint, he believes the decision may have been too much of a knee-jerk reaction.

“From the legal and constitutional perspective it is important to know that when we talk about separating church and state we aren’t talking about a brick wall,” Brown explained. “It’s more like a chain link fence. No one intended to completely eliminate the influences of religion from governmental or public life.”

Brown said, however, it’s important for the district to show it doesn’t “openly and officially recognize or legitimize one religion over another.”

“The concern of the board and their focus needs to be one of consideration to minority faiths or even lack of faith,” Brown said. “That being said, any school representatives must welcome all prayers of all faiths and make it clear this is their policy.”

Another parent, Dawn Otlowski Fende, said she wants the prayers to continue. “We, as Christian family, will continue to pray at any moment we feel it’s needed — including [at] school,” she said. “We feel it’s a small way to keep our community uniformed. This feels like a way to separate our community.”

Markert said the solution most schools come up with as a result of this kind of complaint is to just carry out the sports event.

“What [schools] can’t do is they can’t carve out time to facilitate a prayer,” Markert explained. “If they were to say, ‘Well we’re going stop for 10 minutes before game starts to pray,’ no they can’t do that. Typically schools just get rid of it and start playing the game.”

Markert said she does not expect FFRF will have to take further action.

“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.”

Saxton said he is hopeful a resolution will be reached by the next home basketball game Feb. 9.

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