LEPANTO, AR (KAIT) – The East Poinsett County school district will no longer conduct public prayers at school-sponsored events after receiving a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
At the request of an unnamed Lepanto resident, Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Patrick C. Elliott sent a letter to EPC Superintendent Michael Pierce, requesting the district "take immediate action to end the practice of permitting prayer over the loudspeaker at school-sponsored events."
In the letter, dated November 19, Elliott specifically references the prayers regularly held before football games, and cites several Supreme Court cases from 1962, 1963, 1985, 1992 and 2000 in which the Court has ruled prayer and devotional Bible reading unconstitutional in public schools, whether adult or student led.
Superintendent Pierce said the school district's attorney advised him to end the prayers instead of facing a lawsuit. In an email to Supt. Pierce, the school attorney said:
"This is not an area where the law is unclear. The law is very clear. You cannot do this, you knew you shouldn't have been doing this, and you have been doing it anyway.
I would strongly recommend you write them back, tell them that the practice has been permanently discontinued, and will never occur again. Then make that be completely true. The alternative is to continue until you are sued, and have to defend your district in court. Your insurance will not cover your defense for a knowing violation of the law, the defense will be out of your own school resources, and you will LOSE the lawsuit."
Several Lepanto residents are upset that a tradition they believe is important to their community has come to an end.
"It's a shame that they won't let us pray to the Man who gives us breath everyday," said Pastor Jeff Miles.
Bobbie Smith has two sons, one in eighth grade at Lepanto Junior High, and the other in ninth grade at Lepanto High School. Smith believes a privilege she had in high school was "stolen" from her sons. "My son's out there on that football field, and someone is asking for protection while he is out there on my behalf. I appreciate that. They need that."
"Crime is not solved in the electric chair. Crime is solved in the high-chair. We've got to instill in our children about God, and without God we're nothing," said Timothy Rollins.
Enlinda Brown believes schools were safer and students were less disruptive when she was a student, partly because of prayer. "We didn't have all that gun shooting. We didn't have a lot of kids getting kicked out of schools over drugs and all that stuff. Now that you're taking this out of the schools and off the basketball games, out of the football games, what do you think you're going to come into now?"
First Baptist Church Pastor Anthony Langley is mentioned in the letter as the one who is responsible for conducting the prayers. Langley said several pastors take part in conducting the prayers throughout the football season.
"We always enjoy praying for the players before the game. It's a very dangerous sport, and you want God's protection over these players, and over the schools involved, and you don't want any nonsense going on and people getting out of control," he said. "You just ask for God's protection over it, and it's unfortunate that we can't do that anymore. Am I mad about it? I'm not really mad. I'm sad."
Emily Nooner said her husband, Revival Center Pastor Daniel Nooner, is seeking help from state leaders to find out what can be done to bring prayer back to EPC. "He has contacted Reed Moody, Mike Huckabee, Senator (Rick) Crawford, Senator (Mark) Pryor, and the Governor's office, Tim Wildmon from the American Family Association, just trying to find out what we need to do as a community to voice our opinion and to let our voices be heard," she said.
"What do we need to do to get prayer back in our local schools, and maybe even our state. "The other religions or other groups of people, they can voice their opinion and say whatever they would like, but we as Christians, I feel like are sometimes pushed to the side."
The following statement is posted on the FFRF web site:
"The Freedom From Religion Foundation enforced the Constitution at East Poinsett County High School in Lepanto, Ark., by successfully ending the pre-game prayer that was said over the loudspeaker by a local pastor.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Superintendent Michael Pierce on Nov. 19 to address the school's Constitutional violations. Elliott wrote that the district should take action to end school-sponsored prayer. "Public high school events must me secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students," Elliott wrote.
Pierce replied with a Nov. 27 letter which stated that in order to stop the prayer the district had informed the press box volunteers at the football game and the school board members at their Dec. 10 meeting that the prayer has stopped."