A group dedicated to keeping religion and government separate has succeeded in having a second plaque imprinted with a prayer removed from a Wythe County school.
Wythe County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Jefferies said the plaque was removed earlier this week from the cafeteria at Fort Chiswell High School after the school system received a complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the same group that pressed school officials to remove a similar plaque from Spiller Elementary School two years ago.
“While the Wythe County School Board and administration strongly support the right of our students to freely exercise strongly held religious beliefs, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits public schools from promoting particular religious beliefs or views. The school division, as a governmental entity, is prohibited by law from displaying or endorsing specific religious messages in its buildings. The Wythe County School Board respects the rights of individuals to freely hold religious beliefs, but the law is clear that public schools cannot favor one religion over others, such as by posting or promoting a particular message within its facilities or activities,” Jefferies said in a statement.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.
A letter dated Oct. 30 demanding the removal of the prayer plaque says a concerned community member contacted the foundation about the plaque, which reads “Our Father: We thank thee for this food. Bless it to the nourishment of our bodies and our lives to thy service. Amen.”
“FFRF contacted Wythe County Public Schools about the same plaque at Spiller Elementary School in 2017, and it was removed,” the letter said. “The District must remove this plaque from all of its schools, along with any other remaining religious displays, and ensure that all of its staff members are aware of the constitutional restrictions on religion in the public schools.”
The letter, written by attorney Brendan Johnson, said, “This religious display is particularly inappropriate given that over a quarter of Americans are not religious. The display alienates those students, families, teacher and members of the public whose religious belief are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school.”
The school system’s decision in 2017 to remove the Spiller plaque was met with backlash from some local parents and religious leaders, who spoke out during a school board meeting and during a community forum held regarding the decision.
On Thursday, Jefferies said that both prayer plaques are in storage at their respective locations. He said that to the best of his knowledge, there are no more prayer plaques in the schools.
The prayer plaque at Fort Chiswell High School had been in the cafeteria since the school was built around 1960, a school official said. Members of the HiY Club, a YMCA program no longer at the school, erected the sign.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation is a national non-profit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including more than 700 in Virginia. According to the group, its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.
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