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Controversy Continues Over Winfield Graduation Ceremony

Reported: May. 28, 2014 10:18 PM EDT
Updated: May. 29, 2014 10:23 PM EDT
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WINFIELD, W.Va. (Sean Delancey) -- Some people in Winfield are still fired up about the decision to keep ex-football coach Leon McCoy out of Winfield High School's graduation.

It's all because his speech centers on religion, and that is raising issues about the separation of church and state.

Despite a petition and a planned protest to get McCoy back on the agenda, it doesn't appear the school system is going to budge on this issue because it says the law is clear: There can be no school-sponsored prayer in school or at school related events, due to the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

"Tell that one student if he didn't want to hear it, go away," Nancy Ellithorp of Winfield said.

Many people in the town are furious that local icon McCoy isn't allowed to speak at the school's graduation ceremony.

In the past, McCoy spoke about God to the students. That's something federal law won't allow, and has not allowed.

Administrators said they were forced to make a tough decision this year and uphold the law, after someone complained about the use of religion in McCoy's speeches.

"It was not something that I wanted to do, because of my personal belief,” Bruce McGrew, the school’s principal, said. “I'm a Christian, and it was a tough situation."

Two key U.S. Supreme Court cases make it clear that no public school can sponsor prayer in school or at a school-related function.

One student, who is about to graduate and didn't want to be identified, said Winfield High students are mostly Christian.

"If I were the minority, I wouldn't mind if the majority shared their beliefs,” the student said. “I don't understand why they can't respect our beliefs."

Putnam County Board of Education member Sam Sentelle said the laws are in place to protect the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state, and to protect people who aren't of a majority religion.

Individual students can organize prayers, but school administrators are strictly forbidden.

McGrew was asked if he thought the law was right in this instance.

“Well, if you read the Bible, we're to stand by God, but we're not supposed to rub it in the nose of the non-believer or the law itself," he said.

It is a view not everyone has.

"If I had a place big enough, I'd say, ‘Hey, have graduation at my house,’ ” Ellithorp. “Then, if you don't want to hear it, you don't have to hear it. Don't come."

Winfield’s graduation is set for 7 p.m. on June 5.

McGrew said, at that time, the focus should be on the graduates and not the controversy.



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