published Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Hamilton County teachers find way to pray for students outside classroom

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.
  • photo
    The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling South Pittsburg High School’s pre-game prayer service, dubbed “Meet Me at the 50,” unconstitutional.
    Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

After sending two letters in as many weeks to public schools in the region over religious activities on school property, a government and religion watchdog group says a large Christian event organized by Hamilton County Schools faculty on Sunday was perfectly OK -- since it was held out of classrooms.

Public school teachers, administrators and staff gathered at Silverdale Baptist Church on Bonny Oaks Drive on Sunday to hold a prayer service for the county school system and its 44,000 students.

A Facebook page for the event said all Hamilton County Department of Education employees were "invited for an evening of praise, prayer and worship."

Organizers suggested staff and community members wear their school shirts and "prepare [their hearts] for worship."

Rebecca Markert, a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that has challenged a number of schools and local governments in the area over separation of church and state issues, says the event, on its face, seemed to pass constitutional muster.

"I think if it was truly initiated off of school time, and they were participating in their individual capacities and not in their capacities as public school officials, then I think it's fine," Markert said.

Karen Hollis, an elementary education director at the school system's central office, was one of the event's organizers. She said Monday that planners were careful to keep the event separate from their daily school duties.

"We wanted to be careful with that, since everyone is a Hamilton County employee, we didn't use the Hamilton County email and all that. We had basically two forms of communication. That was Facebook and word of mouth," Hollis said. "We did it on our own, and we did it on our own time."

Planning meetings for the event were held at the church, after school hours, she said.

The event, named What If Chattanooga, was "completely voluntary" and aimed at staff members, not students, she said. It was mainly aimed at challenging school staff to look beyond stereotypes and treat people with kindness, Hollis said.

"What if we allowed God to change us, what if we saw kids and parents and co-workers through his eyes and not ours. ... How could that impact not just a classroom, but a family or a community?" Hollis said.

Originally the vision of Ruthie Panni, a Wolftever Creek Elementary teacher, organizers hope to make the service an annual event, Hollis said.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent letters to Hardy Elementary School in late August and South Pittsburg High School last week over separate religious activities.

The foundation asked officials at Hardy Elementary to cease monthly after-school prayer walks at the school, saying the activities endorsed one religion over another.

Hardy Principal Annette Ferguson said the prayer walks were optional and held after school hours.

At South Pittsburg High School, the foundation disputed the appropriateness of prayer circles on the 50-yard-line before football games.

Last year, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga stopped public prayer before football games after receiving a letter from the group. And the foundation took issue with prayer and church-sponsored meals for Ridgeland High School football players.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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