Tennessee GOP chairman accuses ACLU of 'scare tactics' on football game prayer issue

photo Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney

NASHVILLE - State Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney is accusing the American Civil Liberties Union Tennessee of using "scare tactics" to "intimidate" public schools on the issue of prayer at high school football games.

After the ACLU-Tennessee last week sent a letter to school superintendents warning about reports of "school-sponsored prayer in numerous" football programs, Devaney today fired off his own letter to the superintendents, calling the ACLU a "far left" organization.

He also says he's started a petition.

"With a new week of football games set to kick off, we write today to tell you we stand with you and the millions of Tennesseans who want to express their rights and not cower to the liberal self-interests of a leftwing organization," Devaney says in the letter.

He charges the ACLU-Tennessee letter "misses a very basic principle about the First Amendment: It was written-not to protect government from religion-but to ensure religious freedoms are not violated by the government."

Moreover, Devaney said, the ACLU-TN willfully misrepresents a point in the U.S. Supreme Court case Sante Fe Independent School District v. Doe case it cites. The Court has found "(n)othing in the Constitution...prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday," Devaney said.

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Last week, ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg announced the organization had sent a letter to superintendents in response to what she said were reports of school-sponsored prayer.

"Our experience is that many public school administrators and educators struggle with how the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom apply to prayer during their school-sponsored events," she said in a news release at the time. "Our goal is to make sure that school systems statewide understand these First Amendment guarantees and commit to protecting religious freedom for all students, including athletes, and for their families who attend the games."

The ACLU-TN letter went out to explain the U.S. Supreme Court held in Lee v. Weisman that school faculty, coaches, administrators and invited clergy may not lead students in prayer or conduct a prayer during a school event.

She said that in regard to the specific practice of prayer at public school football games, the Supreme Court established in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that a Texas school district policy permitting its student body to vote at the beginning of each school year whether or not to have prayers before football games also violates the Establishment Clause.

But in her actual letter to superintendents, Weinberg said "contrary to protests voiced by those who desire to use the public schools as a forum for promoting their particular religious beliefs, the Supreme Court's holding in Sante Fe is not anti-religious and does not interfere with the rights of students, guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause, to worship and pray according to the dictates of their own consciences."

Absence of school-endorsed prayer from a public school's athletic event "does not impose any burden on the ability of students to personally affirm their religious beliefs," she wrote.

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