Kentucky high school closes room that some called chapel

Friday, July 27, 2001
Don Disney sits in chapel/quiet room at Cumberland High School in Cumberland, Ky., on April 25. Disney, a member of the school’s advisory council, created the room out of a janitor’s closet.

Officials at a Kentucky public high school decided this week to close a popular “quiet room” — adorned with pews, an altar and religious material and wall hangings — that some viewed as an in-school chapel.

But Edward Clem, principal of Cumberland High School in Harlan County, Ky., said the decision to close the room had nothing to do with First Amendment concerns or lawsuits, but with a need for space for an influx of students in the coming year.

“We’re inheriting the seventh- and eighth-graders from the closed Cumberland Middle School,” Clem said. “That room will be used for bathrooms.”

School officials said the public high school opened its quiet room to give the students a retreat from a hectic day. But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said the room, though officially called a quiet room, functioned primarily as an on-site chapel.

The community credits retired coal miner Don Disney with creating and paying for the quiet room/chapel, which replaced an unused janitor’s closet on the third floor of the school. Local contractors donated labor and materials, while a church gave three padded pews.

Officials locked the room door in April after the ACLU and Americans United formally questioned the legality of such a room in a public school. The school reopened it on April 23 under considerable community pressure. Officials removed a single framed drawing that included a reference to Isaiah 49:15-16: “I will not forget you … . I have carved you on the palm of my hand.”

Later, ACLU officials said they would withdraw their complaints provided that all religious references were removed from the room.

The issue apparently became moot after Harlan County school officials closed Cumberland Middle School last spring. The high school must now add two more bathrooms to accommodate 130 seventh- and eighth-grade students.

In a telephone interview, Clem said school officials decided July 23 to convert the 9-by-12-foot quiet room/chapel and a resource office into restrooms.

Although Harlan County school officials said the closing of the room had nothing to do with First Amendment concerns, their decision comes a month after a federal judge said the school system must remove displays of the Ten Commandments in the schools.

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman in a June 22 decision ruled that the displays violated the First Amendment because they had both the purpose and effect of government endorsement of religion.

Although the defendants offered several secular purposes, Judge Coffman noted that the court had a duty “to distinguish a sham secular purpose from a sincere one.” She went on to write that “the history of these displays indicates that the defendants’ overall purpose is religious in nature: to display the Ten Commandments.”

Although that lawsuit didn’t address the chapel/quiet room, Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United, said that after the judge’s ruling, school district attorneys assured his group that the room would not be reopened.

Benen said the chapel was one of the most blatant violations he’d seen of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The clause says government must not establish religion in public institutions.

“Schools are required to remain neutral on religious matters,” Benen said in a telephone interview. “Housing a chapel in a public school would obviously be inconsistent with the principle of school neutrality.

“The school was inviting a lawsuit they were almost certain to lose,” he said. “I’m glad to see this matter being resolved without going into a courtroom.”

Clem stressed that the threat of a lawsuit didn’t spark the move. He said the quiet room might still be in the school if there weren’t space concerns.

“I’m sure we would have kept it open,” he said. “It’s been all positive. I haven’t heard anything negative about this in our community.”

Tags: , ,