Community rallies behind beloved school

Published 8:00 pm Friday, October 19, 2012

As school administrators sort through what’s legally required of them following a demand by the American Civil Liberties Union that unlawful, officially sanctioned prayers at West Lincoln Attendance Center cease, much of the community has rallied in support of the school and its leaders.

     Gail Twiner has a long commute but gets to her job at West Lincoln Grocery early in the morning, about 7 a.m. The grocery is at the intersection of Jackson-Liberty Drive and West Lincoln Drive, directly across from the attendance center’s main office.

     From her perch behind the grocery counter, Twiner saw much of the community in action throughout the day Thursday.

     She saw students gather before classes Thursday in the Jack Case Gymnasium parking lot, form a circle and pray. She saw vehicles emblazoned with messages aimed at the ACLU across the school’s parking lot.

     “Pray Without Ceasing,” the back windshield of a truck said. “Pray” and “Jesus Saves” were written on another car.

     She saw the students filter by and through the grocery, most of them wearing religiously themed T-shirts.

     Twiner doesn’t live in West Lincoln, but she knows its people. She described them as very tightly knit.

     “It has hurt the community,” Twiner said of the ACLU’s spotlight onto prayer at the school.

     The tension – at the school, in the community – was thick and easily felt during the day, Twiner said.

     In a Wednesday letter to the Lincoln County School District, the Mississippi ACLU chapter said it has documented numerous violations at West Lincoln of established law regarding the separation of church and state, including prayer by teachers and administrators before school events, among numerous other alleged violations.

     Speaking from his office at Gum Grove Baptist Church, located a few miles from the attendance center, youth minister Benji Pyeatt said he knows what’s been usual practice at the school may have to change.

     “The school leaders may have to step back,” Pyeatt said. “They may have to change some things.”

     However, Pyeatt’s focus is on the teenagers he works with and what they can do. He believes West Lincoln can still be a place of prayer.

     “The ball is in their court,” Pyeatt said. “We want to encourage the students. They can still pray.”

     Mississippi ACLU leaders acknowledge that students praying before a meal or a student-led prayer at a flagpole is legal and they don’t object to that. Their sights are set on what’s deemed “official” prayer by school staff, prayers the ACLU calls “coercive.”

     Pyeatt wishes things could be different.

     “I think prayer should be central, and there is a time that it was,” Pyeatt said. “You can’t separate from the reality Christians live in just because you’re a teacher or a principal.”

     Gum Grove member Mandy Mathis agrees. At her home on West Lincoln Drive, also only a few miles from the school, she has three signs staked into her yard.

     Together, they read “Pray Without Ceasing.”

     “I put the signs up to support our school, support our students,” Mathis said.

     Mathis is a 1994 graduate of West Lincoln Attendance Center.

     Her senior year, she was named Miss West Lincoln. Her husband was Mr. West Lincoln from a different class. Her three children are all West Lincoln students.

     In short, she loves West Lincoln.

     “We’re all family in the community,” she said speaking at her home Thursday afternoon, wearing a green West Lincoln Attendance Center T-shirt.

     Mathis believes the school has been blessed by God, reflected in its status as a National Blue Ribbon School and as a state Star school.

     She doesn’t want to see any changes in the way administrators run the school, but she echoed Pyeatt: The students can make up the difference.

     “If things change for the faculty or administrators, nothing has to change for (the students),” Mathis said.

     Mathis hopes the community takes what has happened this week as an opportunity for unity, not anger. She wants her own children and all the students at the school to feel the same.

     “We’re going to encourage them to approach this positively,” Mathis said.

     Controversy about school prayer is becoming familiar in the area. At the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter highlighting the state of accepted law on the subject of school prayer. That prompted the Lincoln County School district to end any prayer offered before football games over loud speakers.

     Bear Atwood, legal director of the Mississippi ACLU, said her organization received a complaint about violations at West Lincoln of laws barring promotion of religion by state entities.

     In an interview earlier this week, Superintendent Terry Brister discussed why this has been a recurring issue in the district.

     “Our values down here are very strong,” said Brister. “Our religious values, (and) churches are very big in our communities and society.”

     With churches and schools often at the center of rural communities like West Lincoln, intermingling can happen, said the superintendent.

     “Sometimes it bleeds over further than it should at times,” Brister said.