A high school in Eastern Kentucky is removing so-called prayer lockers from its hallways after receiving a complaint from a national organization that advocates for the separation of church and state.
Signs on the lockers at Pike Central High say students can slip in pieces of paper with confidential requests for other students to pray for them. The school’s art department and a student posted photos of two prayer lockers on Facebook. One of the posts says the locker is sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The post’s caption also thanks someone who appears to be a teacher at the school for giving students the idea for the prayer locker.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State then sent a complaint letter to Pike County Schools based on an online tip the organization received from someone in the Pike County community. The complaint includes an image of the now-deleted Facebook post from the school’s art department (see above).
The organization argued the prayer locker is “likely a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Americans United staff attorney Ian Smith signed the letter to the school district, which describes various legal precedents that uphold the separation of church and state in schools.
“It is pretty straightforward that public schools cannot display religious messages, and they can’t encourage their students to pray or engage in religious activity,” Smith said in an interview.
The Pike County prayer lockers are only the most recent case questioning the separation of church and state in Kentucky. Last week, Governor Matt Bevin caused controversy with a video tweet that encouraged students to participate in “Bring Your Bible To School Day.”
And starting this year, Kentucky schools are required by state law to display the national motto, “In God We Trust,” in a prominent place.
How is the prayer locker different from displaying the national motto in schools?
“It shouldn’t be,” Smith argued on behalf of Americans United.
But he went on to explain that federal courts permit symbolic gestures like the national motto under the doctrine of “ceremonial deism.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justices William Brennan Jr. and Sandra Day O’Connor have argued that even if “In God We Trust” has a religious origin, it has been used for for government purposes for so long that the phrase has lost its religious meaning.
Smith said federal courts have been clear that students can organize and advertise religious activities that take place after school hours, but they can’t use school resources or staff to communicate religious messages.
“Definitely school employees cannot be masterminding and putting up those messages on school walls,” Smith said.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reports the school district’s attorney recommended the schools remove the prayer lockers. Pike County Schools’ superintendent Reed Adkins declined WFPL’s request for any comment or confirmation of details.
Pike Central High student Emily Chaney wrote in a Facebook post that she will now receive prayer requests personally in the cafeteria. She said that maintaining the prayer locker was “the biggest blessing.”