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Longtime religious graduation speaker bows out

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — 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…


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