As a West Virginia woman proved recently, a big fight isn’t always needed to win church-state separation battles. Sometimes all it takes is persistence and the courage to speak up.
One day in December, Jacqueline Webb dropped off her two children at Central City Elementary School in Huntington, W.Va., because they were running behind schedule. According to the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, when she went into the school office to sign in her kids, she happened to overhear a sectarian prayer delivered over the P.A. system.
“It was Dec. 17, the Monday after the Sandy Hook shooting, and the kids were late that morning,” Webb said. “So I took them into the office to get slips and get to class, and while I was standing there, the principal went through the Pledge and announcements and then introduced a staff member who prayed in Jesus’ name.”
Webb said the incident made her uncomfortable because religious matters should be left to individual families, not the school. When she complained, Principal Patrick O’Neal apologized and assured her that “‘it was a one-time occasion in response to Sandy Hook because everybody needed reassurance and comfort.’”
Apparently that wasn’t exactly accurate. Webb’s children ran late again one day in January, and when she dropped them off that time she heard O’Neal praying over the school loudspeaker. According to her recollection, he called for “protection and help to get us through our day” and ended his prayer with “in Jesus’ name, Amen.”
This time, Webb was understandably livid. She was also genuinely concerned for families who don’t subscribe to O’Neal’s beliefs.
“I was furious,” she told the newspaper. “I was sitting there thinking that I know of at least one other family there, a Catholic family, who doesn’t pray the same way. There have got to be Jewish families in that school who don't pray that way. And, I was furious that I’d been lied to the first time about it being a one-time-only thing for Sandy Hook.”
Then Webb really got to the heart of the matter.
“This is why we have separation of church and state -- because you cannot be fair to everybody,” she said.
Webb’s second complaint seems to have done the job. O’Neal ended up apologizing again this week and offering an assurance that “it won’t happen again.”
A lot of people have searched for answers since the Sandy Hook shooting, but coercive prayers over a school loudspeaker isn’t going to bring any of the victims back nor is it going to stop any future violence. It also seems that O’Neal may have been exploiting the tragedy in an attempt to proselytize.
Fortunately O’Neal was prevented from advancing his sectarian plans because Webb was both diligent and vocal. Without parents like her, it would be very difficult to get coercive prayers kicked out of public schools. I hope her complaints have settled this matter for good.
Americans United is certainly grateful to Webb and others like her, for without them we could not help defend the wall of separation between church and state.