published Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Tennessee bill to allow staff at student-led religious events advances

  • photo
    Rep. Judd Matheny, right, speaks with Rep. Phillip Johnson on the House floor in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday, April 21, 2011. Johnson is the sponsor of a bill that would allow school staff to participate in student-led religious gatherings.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Teachers and other education personnel could participate in student-led religious gatherings held on public school grounds under legislation approved Tuesday 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 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 clearer. "[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.

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