PIKEVILLE, Ky. (KT) - An eastern Kentucky student gained the opportunity to meet President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump last weekend, sharing her experience with them after her high school prayer locker was removed last October.
Emily Chaney, a sophomore at East Ridge High School, said that she put up a prayer locker on Aug. 28, 2019, to help her fellow students with any issues they were facing. District officials ordered for the prayer lockers at her school and Pike Central High School to be taken down around Oct. 1.
District officials cited the reason being a letter they received from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which advocates for church and state separation, about a complaint the organization received about employee-involved prayer lockers.
Emily said it made her feel “heartbroken” to take her locker down. However, she and her mother, Donetta Chaney, said they heard from several district officials, like Superintendent Reed Adkins, who told them that the situation was an issue of legality. They said they did not blame the district officials for complying.
“Prayer has always been a huge part of my life, and I just wanted to let students know that someone was there for them, someone cared for them and that someone was praying for them,” Emily said. “They didn’t have to go through high school alone and they didn’t have to go through life alone. I had nine or 10 prayer requests in my locker a day, and so many people came up to me, telling me that I was doing a great thing and that they were just so proud of me for putting it up.”
The story about the removal of the prayer lockers sparked backlash from many school students and locals around the community, culminating in a movement led by a local pastor called “Pray Anyway,” which captured local, statewide and national attention.
To Emily’s surprise, her story also captured the attention of the White House. She and Donetta received a phone call from a liaison of President Donald Trump on Jan. 9. The liaison told them that she had read stories about prayer in school and she wanted to invite several students across the country who had previously experienced “issues” while trying to pray in school.
“She had heard Emily’s story,” Donetta said. “She said that she was really interested in it, and that she had been involved in a youth group when she was younger and she remembers having prayer and things in her youth group. (She said) Emily’s story really touched her because she understood it, and she said she really felt compelled to Emily’s story.”
Emily said she felt “kind of overwhelmed” after being invited to Washington, D.C. Emily was one of only six students from across the country who was invited to discuss religious freedom and the First Amendment with Trump and First Lady Melania Trump last week.
“It was a lot to take in,” Emily said. “It was just amazing. I was so thankful for that opportunity, and I knew it would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. God had really put me in this place, and he really wanted me to do it.”
The meeting took place on Jan. 16, during a press conference where Trump defended student prayer in schools and warned school administrators that they risk losing federal funds if they violate their students’ rights to religious expression, according to NPR. At the press conference, Emily was joined by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim students and teachers, and the event was held in honor of National Religious Freedom Day.
Upon arriving in Washington, D.C. on the day before the press conference, Emily and Donetta said they felt surprised to learn that they would be standing behind Trump, which they said was unexpected. Emily and Donetta met Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, and Emily gave the First Lady a Bible with a prayer locker image on the cover and a “Pray Anyway” wristband. She said she felt like Trump wanted to listen to what she had to say, which made her feel proud.
During her visit, she and her mother also visited the Arlington National Cemetery and the Museum of the Bible, located in Washington, D.C. It was Emily’s first time visiting the nation’s capitol, and she said that she felt blessed to have the opportunity to meet with the president.