published Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Freedom from Religion Foundation group asks end of prayer services at Hardy Elementary School

Jackie Moore, right, prays with Assistant Principal Rick Hall at Hardy Elementary.
Jackie Moore, right, prays with Assistant Principal Rick Hall at Hardy Elementary.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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Freedom from Religion letter to Hamilton County Schools
Freedom from Religion letter to Hamilton County Schools
Freedom from Religion request letter to Hamilton County Schools
Freedom from Religion request letter to Hamilton County Schools

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has asked Hamilton County Schools to end monthly after-school prayer services at Hardy Elementary School.

A Times Free Press story earlier this month highlighted a prayer walk at the school, where teachers, administrators, parents and students walked the halls to pray with members of Love Baptist Church. In a letter to the school system's attorney, the national Freedom from Religion Foundation says those actions raise constitutional concerns by offering an endorsement of a particular religion.

Hardy Principal Annette Ferguson could not be reached for comment on Friday. But she earlier told the Times Free Press that the prayer walk was optional. Though she said there were children of many faiths at Hardy, Ferguson said the prayer service only happened after school, so people could choose whether to participate.

The foundation, which has consistently sought to keep prayer and other religious activities out of public schools and other government settings, says Ferguson's comments were troublesome.

"When she and other administrators participate in these prayer walks in such an official capacity, it makes it clear that they approve of these Christian events, and exhibits favoritism to Christianity over all other religions," staff attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the school system.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has been involved in several local church-state separation issues. Last year, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga banned public prayer before football games after receiving a letter from the group. And the foundation challenged prayer and church-sponsored meals for Ridgeland High School football players last year.

Hamilton County Schools attorney Scott Bennett said he is looking into the matter. But, generally speaking, he said the school system does not treat any religious group more or less favorably than other groups. The school system remains neutral on religion. And while employees may exercise their own religious liberties, he said they may not do so in an official capacity.

Staff writer Yolanda Putman contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at 423-757-6249 or khardy@timesfreepress.com.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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