CINDERELLA – Mingo County Schools has changed school policies regarding student religious groups after activities led by evangelist Matt Hartley at Mingo Central High School (MCHS) were determined to be in violation of state and federal law.
During the week of April 13, religious sermons conducted at MCHS, caught the attention of the religious watchdog organization, The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF).
On April 18, correspondence was sent from Patrick Elliot, FFRF Staff Attorney, to Robert Bobbera, the Superintendent of Mingo County Schools regarding unconstitutional religious assembly.
The letter states, “I am writing on behalf of the Freedom from Religion Foundation to alert you to a serious constitutional violation within Mingo County Schools… It is our understanding that MCHS held a Christian revival event during the school day on April 13. We were informed that evangelist Matt Hartley preached to students…”
The letter continues explaining that several past legal cases have determined that it is unconstitutional for public schools to promote religion. The letter states, “This type of event is blatantly unconstitutional. It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion. See generally, Lee v. Weisman, Wallace v. Jaffree, Epperson v. Arkansas…The Supreme Court has held that the ‘preservation and the transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private spere.’ In Lee, the Supreme Court extended the prohibition of school sponsored religious activities beyond the classroom to all school functions. Thus, promotion of religion as a part of a school assembly violates the Establishment Clause.” (The Establishment Clause prohibits all governmental entities from endorsing or encouraging religion in any way.)
The letter concludes stating that school systems must remain neutral in regard to religion. In the letter, Elliott writes, “Mingo County Schools has a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion. Parents, not the school district are responsible for determining the religious or nonreligious upbringing of their children…”
On April 28, Denise Spatafore, legal counsel for Mingo County Schools, responded to the FFRF correspondence. In the letter, Spatafore explains that upper administration for Mingo County Schools were unaware of the events occurring at MCHS. The letter states, “The activities that took place at MCHS during the week of April 13-16 were unauthorized and conducted without the input of the superintendent, board of education, or central office administration for Mingo County Schools. We agree with you that certain aspects of the student prayer group’s activities that week have created serious issues regarding potential violations of both state and federal law.”
Spatafore also states that staff training will be provided during the summer to educate staff on legal obligations concerning student religious groups. Attached to the letter is a document currently being sent to school principals listing guidelines for student religious groups. The letter states, “Steps have already been taken by the superintendent to ensure that such events will not occur in the future and that all staff are educated regarding the legal obligations of school systems when such issues arise…The principal of MCHS has been individually counseled about the events which occurred at her school earlier this month and provided information regarding student religious groups… In addition, the subject of guest speakers and their permissible role in such student organizations has been addressed with the principal and all school administrators.”
(Courtney Pigman is a news reporter for the Williamson Daily News. She can be contacted at [email protected], or at 304-235-4242, ext. 2279.)