published Thursday, October 1st, 2009

It’s a Southern thing

Audio clip

John Cavett

Southern culture traditionally embraces prayer and religion in public life without regard for outside opinion, political affiliations or legal interpretations.

With few exceptions, a prayer opens most public government meetings and sporting events in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. In many cases a local pastor leads the prayer, but in a few, including the Chattanooga City Council and the Hamilton County Commission, government officials sometimes pray.

The issue of separating church and state popped up in North Georgia last week when someone complained about Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders holding up banners bearing Bible phrases at football games.

Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese banned the banners, prompting a local outcry that led to a support rally Tuesday night.

Southern heritage and traditions have always had a strong religious background, said William Power, professor of religion at the University of Georgia.

“In the South, you primarily have a Christian tradition,” he said. “That obviously is going to be expressed in forms of public worship.”

Some people are attracted to the region because of the prevalence of religion and spirituality.

Ken Medley, a newcomer to the Chattanooga area, said he and his wife moved from Tampa, Fla., because of the strong spiritual traditions he found.

“That is still a rich part of the threads that make up the tapestry of the community here,” he said. “If you take that away, then we’re just like every other place.”

But Dr. Power said that people also need to be sensitive to other religions that are a growing presence in the community.

Majority rule?

Despite prevailing opinion in a majority Christian community, public expression of religion can be against the law, a local attorney said.

“There is a point where mixing religion with public gatherings becomes unconstitutional,” said lawyer John Cavett. “It’s not a bright line of demarcation; there’s a gray area.”

In the context of high school activities, part of the issue hinges on the ages of the people involved and how readily they can leave the event or ignore religious activities taking place, he said.

While he agrees the banners held up by the LFO cheerleaders are an unconstitutional promotion of religion, “it would be more clearly unconstitutional if it was happening during the school day at the school,” since students are legally compelled by the state to be at school, he said.

“It’s a little bit different at a high school football game,” he said.

Bill Nigut, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Catoosa County schools chief made the right call.

He agreed with Mr. Cavett that the issue is clearer in schools, where students are required to attend.

But Brian Haney, pastor of Anchor of Hope Baptist Church in Rossville, disagrees.

“I definitely think they have a right to display those Christian banners and signs. I don’t see that they’re breaking any laws,” he said.

An old dispute

The debate over freedom of religion and separation of church and state is not new.

The Scopes trial, which put Dayton, Tenn., on the map in 1925, came about because a high school teacher taught his students the theory of evolution. That violated a state law mandating that students learn creationism as the origin of mankind.

When Ringgold built a new city hall in 1999 the building included the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Both were removed a year or two later under the threat of legal action, according to City Manager Dan Wright.

Hamilton County commissioners voted shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to post the Ten Commandments. A federal judge ordered them removed in May 2002.

A plaque containing the Ten Commandments has hung for years in a hallway near an entrance to the Bradley County Courthouse.

And while many local government buildings no longer display biblical images, most city council and commission meetings are still opened with prayer.

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Curtis Adams said the only person who could stop the prayers before commission meetings would be a federal judge.

“Anybody tries to stop that, we’ll certainly fight that,” he said. “That’d be a dirty fight.”

When Mr. Adams was sworn in as chairman last month, he asked commissioners to get pastors from their districts to conduct the weekly prayers.

In City Council meetings, most prayers in the council petition a “supreme being” and not a specific entity, said Council Chairman Jack Benson.

“I don’t think it’s promoting one religion over another,” he said.

Mr. Nigut said governmental entities that open their meetings with a prayer are likely crossing the constitutional line.

“They’re really unacceptable,” he said. “Are they well-intentioned? Sure. The fact of the matter is we would argue that this is unfortunately a clear violation of the Constitution because it essentially promotes religion.”

While there is no prayer offered at the beginning of Hamilton County Board of Education meetings, the agenda always includes a meditation. After the Pledge of Allegiance, a school system employee offers some sort of inspirational story, poem or thought, sometimes religious in nature, officials said.

Dade County Schools Superintendent Patty Priest said prayer is part of every school board meeting and student-led prayers usually happen at the beginning of ballgames.

Right or wrong, it’s part of the culture, Ms. Priest said.

“We pray every day. If you’re in the school business, you better pray,” she laughed.

Several staff writers contributed to this story.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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Tax_Payer said...

As long as there are tests, there will be prayer is schools.

October 1, 2009 at 1:01 a.m.
librul said...

A hundred million prayers, and god still hasn't cured acne.

October 1, 2009 at 8:02 a.m.

I'm from the south and this is definitely NOT my cultural tradition. Please don't paint all southerners with the same color. The southerners that make the papers are not necessarily indicative of the whole!

October 1, 2009 at 8:24 a.m.
enufisenuf said...

Its a bunch of big mouthed, brain washed, illogical christian hypocrites making the rational, sensible southener look like idiots to the rest of the world. BAN religion from schools and let that be the end of it. WHo cares what the churchies say. If there was an anti christian sign, they would have cried about that. You just can't quiet the crybabies.

October 1, 2009 at 8:50 a.m.
WeeWo said...

Thank you Tax_Payer and librul for the bit of humor this morning. You know we can all use it the way the world is going right now. And yes, FormerChattanoogaResident, I am also a former Chattanooga resident and I loved it there. Some of the best people you will ever meet live there and I would move back in a heartbeat if my daughters were all not so close to me now.

I can't see why we all need to be so opinionated. Can't we just agree that opinions are important to everyone but that we don't have to make them accepted by others? I think that is what's wrong with the world today, starting right here in our own back yards. Our own govenment can't agree to let others have their own opinions, thinking the right is better than the left, and vice versa. People thinking their religion is the only one that is right, and countries killing others (even our own) because they disagree over the issue. Everybody wanting more power over others. The whole thing is just out of hand.

I say leave these High School students alone. Who are they hurting? Really no one. Are they any different than all those out there that write comments on this website? No, not really. If two gay men were walking down the street, holding hands, is that wrong? Maybe to some or even most, but is it hurting anyone? Are they trying to push it off on me? I say, "No." So just let it be.

October 1, 2009 at 8:51 a.m.

Librul, the Word of the Lord says, "He answers the prayers of the righteous"...that means a whole bunch of hypocrites and Haters are excluded. So take your drugs for your acne and Hope it will Change.

The only Hypocrites, Haters and Agenda-Pushers we have met here in the South so far (and most definitely out West in the Red states), are Far-left Liberals and Race-baiters/dividers.

Interesting how 'compassionate' their agenda really is. Live and let live, freedom of speech, etc. Oh yeah. Tell that to the millions of kids in schools who have Leftist teachers and textbooks shoving another agenda down their throats that we, the taxpayers don't want.

October 1, 2009 at 9:40 a.m.
enufisenuf said...

canaryinthecoalmine, your proof of Brainwashing

WeeWo, two gays walking down the street holding hands would have the christian hypocrites howling like a wolf at a full moon.

Y'all are sad, patheric and now you will quote your cult based scripture in defense of your fictional baloney beliefs.

October 1, 2009 at 10:03 a.m.
Tax_Payer said...

Librul, the bible says, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all things shall be added unto you."

That is kind of a broad verse, but if you take care of what God has giving you to begin with by being a good steward, then "acne" would not be there simply because you have gone as far as to a doctor for the appropriate solution.

God has doctors to help answer prayer. Don't die in prayer when you grow ill; get to the doctor.

October 1, 2009 at 10:05 a.m.
HiDef said...

librul: I believe you mispoke and meant to say, a hundred million prayers and god hasn't cured ANYTHING.

canary: I would wager that there are many amputee's in this world who consider themselves to be "righteous" Christians, yet god has never been able to regrow someone's arm or leg etc...Why not? Is there a list of things you can pray for that god will answer or is he just prejudice against a certain group of people? I'd love to hear a logical answer as to why god cannot perform certain miracles yet he can create the universe in 6 days.

October 1, 2009 at 10:24 a.m.
chickamauga123 said...

I am quickly drawn into prayer for so many of your souls. It sadens me that so many people find it necessary to oppose Christianity. Jesus Christ IS King and He shall one day judge us all. That is TRUTH. Through all of this LFO saga, may God be glorified and His presence reach the lost.

October 1, 2009 at 10:34 a.m.
nathanielfoster said...

Let's not get off on a tangent here and have an argument over whether creationism is true or not. The bottom line is when post something religious or something that pays lip service to a certain belief system you are going to get some blowback. There are countless inspirational quotes that could be used that everyone could agree upon. We live in a multicultural society where people from all belief systems interact. It is important to note that the players themselves could have personally used these quotes for inspiration, but the moment you begin advertising for a specific religion you've made a mistake. No one, especially from another belief system wants to go see their son or daughter play in a sports game and be subjected to proselytization. Use a more humanistic and universal approach when seeking to inspire.

October 1, 2009 at 11:06 a.m.
chickamauga123 said...

I pray that every Christian that reads this will make banner glorifying CHRIST and you go to that game on Friday. You are not restricted from a sign! Stand behind those cheerleaders and re-confirm in them the Power of God.

October 1, 2009 at 11:17 a.m.
Pastorref said...

I wish just once someone would actually read the first amendment. It would put an end to all of this nonsense. The first amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law that establishes religion NOR PROHIBITS FREE EXCERCISE OF THE SAME."
What law did Congress pass establishing religion as a law? A federal agency (such as a school) allowing a Scriptural sign is not tantamount to establishing a law. The "no endorsement" interpretation is unconstitutional. It was never intended to give us freedom FROM religious expression. The irony of the whole situation is that the banning of Scriptural quotations is actually a greater violation of the beloved first amendment than allowing them is. I wish some of our leaders would grow a backbone and tell the overwhelming minority to just deal with it. Don't read the signs. No one has infringed on your first amendment rights by making a sign.

October 1, 2009 at 3:49 p.m.
trigger said...

Several people such as librul, former chattanooga resident, enufisenuf are just using this opportunity to down religion. You are missing the whole point. The cheerleaders have no intention for forcing anything on anyone. They simply are trying to give encouraging words to the players. It promotes no specific religion. Get a life and leave the kids alone. Don't like the sign. Don't read it. Turn your head for the 2 minutes it stands. To the students-The people sitting in judgement say the cheerleaders can't hold the sign because they have on a uniform that positions them with the school- you don't. Why can't the students hold the sign? Could that be possible. You do have a right to have what ever signs you want. I heard that said on live TV. Food for thought.

October 1, 2009 at 6:42 p.m.
HiDef said...

trigger: These signs didn't promote a specific religion? Are you serious???

Encouraging words are things such as, "go team", or "good luck", or "fight hard", or even just "win". These are positive words for all. Who knows, maybe a few kids on the team have good parents that have let their children make their own choices religiously and they don't find these signs encouraging because it disagrees with their beliefs? What about those kids?

Aside from all of that, people go to football games to watch football, not to get their weekly dose of god. If you want some uplifting through bible versus, go to church but don't do it at a football game.

October 1, 2009 at 9:12 p.m.
obviousman said...

Apparently religious freedom only applies to protestant Christians at that high school. The signs give me the impression that others will not be welcome on the cheerleading squad or football team. Government institutions not permitted to be exclusive of any religion but allowing those signs as an official part of participating in athletics is exclusive.

Of course since people there are so big on free expression I'm sure that they would be most tolerant of Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim prayer.

October 2, 2009 at 1:36 p.m.
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