Caution urged on school prayer

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."