After the school system received complaints, a revered Putnam County coach has agreed not to give a religiously themed speech at Winfield High School’s June 5 graduation, but a community backlash has ensued.
Leon McCoy coached football at Winfield High for more than half a century before retiring about two years ago, and for at least the past 10 graduations, he said, he has given a speech he described as a way to “pray without praying.” He said he tried to avoid controversy over school prayer in the speech with lines like, “If I could pray, I would ask God to bless all the seniors.”
“Coach McCoy knew for many, many years that he wasn’t allowed to pray at a school function,” Putnam County Schools spokeswoman Karen Nowviskie said. “... So he has been giving a speech that in essence was a prayer, knowing that time was against him in terms of that being allowed to occur -- that it would come to an end someday because of the law.”
Superintendent Chuck Hatfield said after Winfield’s last graduation ceremony, the school system received what he believes was the first formal written complaint about McCoy’s speech. He said he’d heard other complaints in previous years “through the grapevine,” though he didn’t know how many total he’d received in the past or prior school years.
Winfield High Principal Bruce McGrew said the school district’s central office forwarded those complaints to him, and it was his job as principal to handle the situation.
“I met with Mr. McCoy, and he said he knew it was coming in this day and time, and he knew we were on borrowed time,” McGrew said. “And he understood.”
McCoy said this was the first time the speech had been challenged. He said he had heard the rumor that he wouldn’t be allowed to speak at the graduation and checked with McGrew about three weeks ago. That’s when he found out about the complaint.
The former coach said the principal is great friend and he didn’t want to do anything to hurt him or Winfield High’s administration.
“I’ve already made my statement,” McCoy said, “that as a Christian I would not interfere in any way.”
But Hatfield said he began receiving emails on the issue and seeing social media posts about it over the Memorial Day weekend. He said he didn’t know that McCoy wasn’t speaking beforehand.
As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, about 600 people had signed an online petition asking Hatfield to allow McCoy to speak and some have suggested protesting the county’s Board of Education -- though Hatfield said neither he nor the board, which ultimately runs the school district, made a formal decision to ban McCoy’s speech.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on prayer at school events in several cases. The 1992 Lee v. Weisman ruling, for instance, dealt with a rabbi giving a “nonsectarian” prayer at a graduation. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that a “school district’s supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places public pressure, as well as peer pressure, on attending students to stand as a group or, at least, maintain respectful silence during the Invocation and Benediction.” He argued attendees who did not agree would feel this pressure to conform, even though they did not share the beliefs.
Kennedy also wrote that students who object to religious practices at their graduations can’t reasonably be expected not to attend.
“Attendance may not be required by official decree, yet it is apparent that a student is not free to absent herself from the graduation exercise in any real sense of the term ‘voluntary,’ for absence would require forfeiture of those intangible benefits which have motivated the student through youth and all her high school years,” he wrote.
Neece Campione, a coordinator with the Secular Coalition for West Virginia, said the biggest problem with religious speech at school events is it makes students who don’t share the majority’s beliefs feel isolated.
McCoy said that, instead of protesting the Board of Education, which he doesn’t blame, he’d rather see his supporters fight the restrictions from higher up that constrain the school system.
“I would hope that we could do that, but we’re getting so fed up with our rights a Christians being taken away from us,” he said.
McGrew said any protest would further take attention off what he said should be the graduation’s real focus: the graduates.
“We as Christians are not to snub our noses at the law and make light of it,” the principal said. “That’s biblical.”
He said there are other ways to reach people without prayers at graduation.
“You can pray anywhere,” he said. “You don’t have to do it out loud.”
Reach Ryan Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1254.