It weighs about 50 pounds and took 11 years to collect. In total, it includes more than 42,000 signatures. And now, a decade-long petition to put prayer back in schools is on its way to the Supreme Court thanks to the efforts of a Fancy Gap man.
Clyde Easter, a World War II Anzio Beachhead veteran, began the petition late in 2006 after he was told he could no longer begin a Veterans Day program with an opening prayer as he had been doing for many years at Carroll County Middle School and St. Paul School. The fruits of his effort, 42,084 signatures, were contained in one heavy box and given to Congressman Morgan Griffith on Thursday in Galax. Griffith said he hoped to have the petition delivered directly to the Supreme Court, which would put it there in about a week’s time. Due to certain security measures though at the nation’s highest court, he said it could possibly take two-to-four weeks.
“This is the largest amount of signatures I have ever received and we are happy to facilitate getting it to the Supreme Court,” Griffith said at the Crossroads Institute in Galax, where he met Easter after attending a meeting on the opioid crisis.
Easter made local headlines on November 10, 2016 after he and a group of veterans from the Grover King VFW Post 1115 in Hillsville were told they could no longer have an opening prayer at the Veterans Day program and that prayer was not allowed in county schools anymore. As a result, Easter and many others walked out of the assembly.
“If we could not thank God for our blessings, we would not have a part in the program,” Easter wrote in a letter at the time. “As a result of this incident, I have started a petition to put prayer back in our public schools in America. I am a twice-wounded veteran of World War II, and this is not the America that we fought, bled and died for. I believe that it is time that the good people of America take a stand for what is right.”
Easter said he had extremely good luck after starting the petition in December of 2006, collecting more than 16,000 signatures by July of the following year. He spent most of his days during that time traveling to churches all over Carroll County, then expanding his efforts into Wytheville and as far as Salem.
“I was really motivated on this thing and every day I was going to some town or church. I had a lot of results from that. I did a lot of footwork to it,” said Easter, who turned 93 in February. “I could walk good back then but my health is not now what is was then. I had good results with it but then for two years I spent day and night with my wife, who passed away with Dementia. It took its toll on me, which is why I didn’t take this back up for a while. She has been dead for five years now.”
Easter said one person, Madalyn O’Hair, was responsible for getting prayer taken out of school, so he feels like one person could get it put back. After all, Easter has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Twice, he has persuaded the U.S. Postal Service to issue new stamps – one representing the Purple Heart and another in honor of Audie Murphy, World War II’s most decorated U.S. combat soldier.
“I often speak to the JROTC kids at the high school. A lot of them have troubled homes and feel unimportant,” Easter said. “I always tell them one person is very important because I have proven that to myself. I have done things that I never thought I could do, including those stamps.”
Easter said aside from circulating his prayer petition throughout Southwest Virginia, he also placed ads in military magazines and other publications. Those endeavors also brought in thousands more signatures from around the nation. He quickly found many people agreed with his sentiment behind the petition.
“I have boxes of letters and I wish you could see the tear marks on the letters these school teachers have sent to me after they took the prayer out. They had them take the Bible off their desk and everything. But they were afraid to act on it for their job,” Easter said. “When I walked out of the school, a lot of the teachers called me later on and said, ‘We need a job or we would have walked out with you.’ They were afraid they would lose their job, and as Dr. McBride (the superintendent at the time) said, ‘If we do this the government will cut our funds off.’”
Congressman Griffith said he was definitely on board with Easter’s petition, although noting he thought there would need to be some level of common ground.
“We have the moment of silence, but when I was a kid I am old enough to remember when we still did a daily devotional in school,” Griffith said. “You have got to rotate it. You have to respect everybody’s opinions, but we do that in the General Assembly, too. Thomas Jefferson never said you couldn’t have public prayer, and the reason we know that is that he sat in Virginia House of Delegates every day when they prayed. He presided over the Senate every day when they prayed. And as the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which was the first in the world, Thomas Jefferson, if that had have been an objection, would have raised the issue.”
Griffith then pointed out Jefferson’s famed “Danbury Letter” in which he coined the phrase, “a wall of separation between Church and State.” The last paragraph of the letter states, “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”
“Well, wait a minute, that sounds like from the President of the United States a religious sentiment in a letter he sends, and the one the Supreme Court relied on to say you couldn’t have prayer in public places, and yet in the same letter what comes darn close in the last paragraph to being a prayer,” Griffith said. “So it is clear that he never intended to bleach by that letter or by his authorship of the Statute for Religious Freedom, he never intended to bleach religion out of our society. Now, he wanted everybody’s religion to be respected.” Most people don’t know it, but Thomas Jefferson did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So it is not like he was some Bible-thumping Baptist, but he believed everyone’s wishes should be respected. So we have to respect that, but he never said get rid of prayer.”
Griffith said Benjamin Franklin was actually an atheist for a short period of time, but he eventually came back to believing in God. He wasn’t sure which was right, but he was raised Presbyterian.
“And he was always tied to the Presbyterian Church because he believed everybody ought to believe in a higher being and that our churches did good work, so our country was founded on some interesting thoughts,” Griffith said. “One of them was respect everybody’s religion but nobody every anticipated there would be an attempt to eliminate prayer from our public life.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN