Jim Scales knew it was only a matter of time before someone complained about prayers said aloud at school-sponsored sporting events.
The Hamilton County Schools superintendent attends local high school football games regularly and said he's heard prayers over the loudspeaker. He always wondered when someone would protest.
After receiving a letter of complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation this week on behalf of students from Soddy-Daisy High School, Scales sent an e-mail to all local principals on Tuesday, saying the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled prayer before football games and graduation ceremonies to be unconstitutional and that the practices should be stopped.
"But things are handled a little differently in different areas of the country," Scales said. "This does not need to be something that divides our community. None of the school cases that have been litigated are designed to keep anyone from praying or exercising their religious freedom."
Scales said he received plenty of feedback Wednesday, mostly from people upset over the public prayer ban.
"I would [expect] that because it's a part of the culture here, it's a part of the landscape," he said. "That's probably one of the reasons it has not been addressed publicly by the school administration or the school board in the past, because it was so widely accepted. No one exercised the right to protest.
"Now that it has happened, we all know what the laws are, so we have to make sure we're doing what's right," he said.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, director and co-president of the Wisconsin-based foundation, said she would pass on information of Scales' action to the students the foundation has been in contact with at Soddy-Daisy High.
"We're delighted. That's very appropriate. That's what we hoped would happen," she said.
She said her organization would continue to monitor Hamilton County Schools, watching for potential First Amendment violations.
Hamilton County Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman, who supports the idea of students praying publicly, suggested that if school-sponsored public prayer is such a problem, maybe the community should hold a fundraiser for a public address system.
"We'll just have to have the students do the prayer, and I guess we'll just have to buy the kids their own PA system," she said.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said those most passionate about allowing school-sanctioned prayer are the very ones who should be fighting to keep government out of religion.
"Our founders were well aware that, without limits set on government, individuals would lose the freedoms they came for when then settled in this country," she said. "While [public prayer] might seem harmless ... it really is tacit approval for government to determine what prayer is acceptable.
"The response from the audience would be very different if the prayer was being said by a leader they didn't support," she said. "One's religious faith is so personal."
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Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...