A student prays. Can controversy be far behind?

18 Oct

Yes, that really is the name of the high school mascot.

It’s been a busy three weeks for Greg Ervin as principal of Gate City (Va.) High School. He’s been fielding phone calls almost every day from parents or the press about a church-state storm that unexpectedly boiled up after a student said a simple, heartfelt prayer at a football game.

“Somewhere lost in all this was the fact that a kid died,” Ervin said this week. “No one ever intended to sensationalize this. It was a simple act of kindness and respect.”

The story started on the night of Sept. 11, when the Sullivan South High School football team played at Gate City. Not only was it the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but the folks from Sullivan were still grieving the death of Jake Logue, one of their players who suddenly collapsed and died during a game in Knoxville on Aug. 21.

Before the game began at Gate City, a brief ceremony remembered the 9/11 victims and Logue, including a moment of silence. A student who was allowed to speak said a prayer, concluding “in Jesus’ name.”

At least one parent in the stands took offense and contacted the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. A few days later, Ervin received a letter from the organization, advising him that a “sectarian prayer delivered over the public address system” before a football game violated a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Such prayers, the letter noted, carry “the impermissible endorsement of the school and coerce participation” in a religious exercise.

The ACLU had been told that Gate City regularly opened its games with prayers – but that is not the case.

Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site

Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site

Ervin shared the letter’s contents with teachers and the Scott County school board and then responded to the ACLU, describing what happened and correcting the wrong information.

In its reply to Ervin, the ACLU pronounced itself satisfied: Case closed.

The story could have ended there, if a little more patience and a little less readiness to be angry had ruled the day.

“We don’t go looking around for incidents,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis in a phone interview this week, “but when someone calls and says this is what they witnessed, we respond. We usually resolve these matters quietly. We write a letter, and the official writes back to explain or clarify. That’s OK. That’s our standard procedure.”

The ACLU did not make its first letter public, but apparently someone in Scott County was upset enough to notify the press about it. Reporters soon arrived, and as word about the ACLU’s concern spread, anger flared. People wrote furious letters to local newspapers and posted unfounded accusations on Web sites.

Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.

Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.

Some Gate City students printed about 1,000 T-shirts to hand out at their Oct. 2 football game, taking a swipe at the ACLU. “I still pray…” the shirt fronts read, and on the back: “In Jesus’ name.” When the Virginia ACLU heard about that protest, it publicly affirmed the students’ rights to distribute the shirts, saying they were only exercising their constitutional right to free speech and religious expression.

While the ACLU has a long record of controversial crusades and debatable pronouncements, Willis insists it is not “anti-religion.” Any list of religion-related cases that the ACLU has handled, he said, will include as many defending the free exercise of religion as those challenging unconstitutional “establishment” of religion.

Last week in Nashville, for example, the ACLU of Tennessee completed a successful negotiation on behalf of Christian students from Belmont, Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech universities who were barred from holding worship services for homeless people in a city park. The Metro Board of Parks and Recreation had “unfairly blocked religious groups’ regular use of park space,” according the ACLU, and helped to revise the policy.

“We’re not the prayer police,” Willis said this week. “The original plan at Gate City (on Sept. 11) was for a moment of silence, and there’s no problem with that. We’re down to a really minor (legal) issue that happened one time. The principal was put on the spot. … This was something spontaneous. What was he supposed to do?”

What Principal Ervin wants to do now is move past the controversy and just “remember the spirit” when two communities shared a moment of sadness and sympathy and “a student reached out and spoke as best she knew how.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 17 Oct 2009.

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