published Friday, October 29th, 2010

Caution urged on school prayer


by Kelli Gauthier

Following more than a week of emotional community debate, officials on Thursday dissected the legality of public prayer on local school campuses.

During a Hamilton County Board of Education work session, board attorney Scott Bennett cited legal precedents, answered hypothetical questions and gave a mini-civics lesson on the First Amendment as it relates to the "extraordinarily complicated and personal" issue of religion in schools.

"I wish I could tell you for sure there's a bright line here. It's circumstance driven," Bennett said. "With regards to matters of religion ... this school system is bound by law to be strictly neutral."

The charged topic surfaced last week after the Freedom from Religion Foundation wrote a letter to Superintendent Jim Scales on behalf of students at Soddy-Daisy High School who complained about prayers said over the loudspeaker at graduation ceremonies and football games.

Scales responded by instructing all Hamilton County principals to immediately disallow the practices, saying the U.S. Supreme Court had deemed them unconstitutional.

The move prompted backlash amongst supporters of public prayer who created T-shirts and Facebook pages calling for Scales' policy to be overturned, and on Wednesday held a prayer meeting at Veterans Park in Soddy-Daisy.

On Thursday, Bennett said the guiding rule for school board members and any school official is that in their official capacity they cannot be seen as endorsing any sort of religion, whether that be joining a student-led prayer group on the football field before a game or including an official prayer on the program of a graduation ceremony.

"People bring their religion into schools. This is a religious community and our values are very dear to us," Bennett said. "But it cannot carry anything that looks like a stamp of approval."

If a school designated the football field as a "limited public forum," students could, in theory, pray publicly, Bennett said. He advised against that, however, saying administrators opened themselves up to hearing student opinion that they might find offensive or inappropriate.

For instance, while a valedictorian cannot offer an official prayer at graduation, officials could remove all restrictions on their speech, and that student might choose to offer a prayer. But in allowing that, schools also would have to allow that student to speak about any topic, Bennett said, such as the benefits of legalizing medicinal marijuana or proclaiming that "God is dead."

Board member Jeffrey Wilson pointed out that it can be difficult for board members to determine what is appropriate involvement, since they are part-time elected officials and "wear many different hats." Wilson is a Christian pastor and said he sometimes is called on to participate in that role.

Although board members and school system officials can be named as plaintiffs in constitutional lawsuits, Bennett said "qualified immunity" protected people who reasonably believed they were not violating the law. He suggested Scales organize a work session for all school administrators to talk about the issues surrounding religion in public schools.

Board member Rhonda Thurman, who attended Wednesday's prayer meeting and has said she supports public prayer in schools, became frustrated Thursday by Bennett's suggestions that she and other board members steer clear of religious involvement in their official capacity.

"Well, how close can I get to the field? Do I have to watch the game from my house in Falling Water?" she said. "The whole thing is just so ridiculous. You can have kids running around doing these horrible dances, saying the 'F' word, but God forbid they try to pray."

about Kelli Gauthier...

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, ...

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chattreb said...

We have to say enough is enough here folks. It's time for civil disobedience if you ask me. Time to draw that line in the sand and tell the Gov. not to step over it when it concerns my freedoms. Got a prayer, pray it, right on the 50 yard line. It's easier for those who don't like it to not close their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears than causing all this trouble.

October 29, 2010 at 12:40 a.m.
librul said...

Well, you've already stepped over MY line which I drew in the sand because it's easier for you arrogant religionists to pray in silence than for me to have to hold my ears shut.

October 29, 2010 at 3:15 a.m.

Congratulations Chattanooga!

You have managed once again to draw the national spotlight on your ignorance! Bravo!

October 29, 2010 at 7:20 a.m.
ebenji87 said...

The quotes were awesome, Wildman. I think anyone who uses the word "folks" in a statement or argument, should automatically be disregarded. That's just me though.

I enjoy watching Chattreb pray at my school about as much as he would like me to come to his church and talk about science.

October 29, 2010 at 8:37 a.m.
mountainlaurel said...

Re Thurman: “"The whole thing is just so ridiculous. You can have kids running around doing these horrible dances, saying the 'F' word, but God forbid they try to pray."

The “freedom of religion” provision is all about respecting the right of each and everyone one of us to follow our own conscience with regard to God. What so ridiculous about this?

These students have the right to pray – the First Amendment guarantees it. But they do not have the right to impose their personal religious rites on others. What is so ridiculous about this?

It’s unfortunate for these students to have School Board Members who do not seem to respect, understand and appreciate our First Amendment. It’s easy to see why there is a crisis.

October 29, 2010 at 9:54 a.m.
Leaf said...

You know what would be funny? Invite an imam to call a prayer at a high school football game. Have a bunch of people whip out prayer rugs and bow towards Mecca and watch the evangelicals' heads explode.

October 29, 2010 at 11:36 a.m.
librul said...

Sorry Leaf - that's just an extension of the issue at hand. No religious expression should be used for the overt purpose of offending anyone else.

It's just a sad characteristic of evangelicalism that many of its adherents believe such arrogant behavior can be considered normal or that it somehow advances their cause.

Neither is true.

The reality is that the founders were well aware of where that leads and were determined not to let religious coercion step foot in the halls of American government. If these people would just stop and look objectively at the situation, they wouild be able to see that the concept of separation protects them as well (but I won't hold my breath).

The FCA, Gideons and other coercive groups that invade public schools and violate the rights of many should be banned from them. The young people who have raised an objection at Soddy deserve praise for standing up for their rights and, by extension, the rights of their fellow students.

As Richard Dawkins has said: "We should value people for what they think, not for what they have been taught to believe." We need students to be given the facts and encouraged to engage in critical thinking. It is not the role of schools to teach them what to believe or to serve as hucksters for any religion..

October 29, 2010 at 12:21 p.m.
CharleyHorse said...

You have to wonder how these school board members manage to tie their shoes. How could any adult not know that allowing proselytizing in public schools violates state and federal laws? They sure know how to play that ignorance card.

Preachers should never be allowed to serve on a public school board. Conflict of interest big time. Wonder if his church sponsors a Xian school.

October 29, 2010 at 1:44 p.m.
Bro_Tim said...

Don't be fooled here people. This isn't about Religion at all. This isn't about people gathering on public property to pray. This is just an attack on Christianity, nothing more. There are Public schools around the country who are now accommodating Muslim prayer inside the schools. The Following was taken USA Today website: "Some public schools and universities are granting Muslim requests for prayer times, prayer rooms and ritual foot baths, prompting a debate on whether Islam is being given preferential treatment over other religions."

I hope all you people who are wanting the prayer to stop will take the same stand when Muslims start their prayer.

God Bless

October 29, 2010 at 1:45 p.m.
chattreb said...

The excellencies of the righteous are obnoxious to the wicked, and the main object of their fury. - Charles H. Spurgeon

There's not a more appropriate quote than this for some of the bigoted statements found in these posts.

October 29, 2010 at 4:28 p.m.
whatsthefuss said...

Bro Tim, as wildman will do so will I. One question, the footbaths. I've never had one but they do sound so inviting. Do you have to be Muslim to receive these?

October 29, 2010 at 4:51 p.m.
concernedmomof2 said...

Wildman, do you do anything besides get on here and raise tirades about everything everyone says? Maybe if you weren't so overly opinionated you might have a life outside of relying on people to comment to have an actual conversation. You may learn there are things in life you are missing, i.e God. Opinions are fine but leave them to few and far between. No one is asking for your opinion at their every comment.

October 29, 2010 at 4:54 p.m.
Bro_Tim said...

Look at current state of our country. Can anyone honestly say we are better off as a nation, now that we have removed God from most all aspects of life? And I'm not just talking in the Public. God has been removed from most "Christian Homes" and replaced with MTV, ESPN, HBO, etc, etc... Sounds harsh but I believe it to be the truth.

October 29, 2010 at 6:03 p.m.
tifosi said...

Time for Soddy Daisy to understand what this nation's Constitutional foundation is really about and what so many fought and died for. Besides, do you really want a government institution involved with educating our children about religion? I think I'll keep that one to myself and my church of choice. Keep the government out of my religion. Thank you.

October 29, 2010 at 6:06 p.m.
CharleyHorse said...

QUOTE Bro_Tim--"God has been removed from most "Christian Homes" and replaced with MTV, ESPN, HBO, etc, etc... "

You need to stop peeking in others' windows.

October 29, 2010 at 6:26 p.m.
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