published Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Bill allows school employees to join student-led religious gatherings

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Should teachers be able to join student-led religious gatherings?

NASHVILLE — Teachers and other education personnel could participate in student-led religious gatherings held on public school grounds under legislation approved today in the House Education Committee.

The bill by sponsor Rep. Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, was approved on a voice vote after an amendment was added. It would cover such activities both before and after school regular school hours.

Johnson brought the bill after the Cheatham County School Board imposed restrictions following a 2010 out-of-court agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union over prayer programs.

“This is to provide some clarity on the existing law,” Johnson said later. “In Cheatham County and I believe in Sumner County, the schools adopted a policy that was a little overly restricting for volunteer student-initiated activities before and after schools.

“This just says they cannot restrict participation in those voluntary activities before and after schools for personnel,” said Johnson, noting the amendment was intended to make the intent more clear. “[There’s] no intention of bringing it into the class.”

Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said the bill still has problems. Having a situation where students arrive at school and see authority figures such as teachers and school administrators participating in student-led programs like “praying around the flagpole” raises concerns, she said.

“Public schools are not Sunday Schools. ... When you start to let school systems support specific religious doctrine, you’re really jeopardizing religious freedom for all families, Christian and non-Christian alike,” she said.

For complete details, see tomorrow’s Times Free Press.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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