Prayer remains important part of student life in Chattanooga area, even with its controversial history in the region

Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Students of McCallie School gather at their flagpole to pray on Sept 25 as part of the annual "See You at the Pole" rally.

Prayer in schools remains a controversial issue here in Chattanooga and surrounding areas.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released new proposed guidelines reinforcing students' rights to religious expression under the First Amendment, in an effort to provide better guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in schools.

Students have long prayed in local schools, but how, when and who participates have caused problems in the past.

In 2018, a Bradley County Schools employee filed a complaint through the Freedom From Religion Foundation after the broadcasting of student-led prayer over loudspeakers before Bradley Central High School football games in 2017.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an advocacy organization for separation of church and state, argued that it was a constitutional violation and cited the Supreme Court decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which struck down a school policy allowing students to vote on whether to hold prayer at high school football games.

photo Students and attendees form a prayer circle with a student-led prayer before the game between Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy Friday at Red Bank High School.

"We were notified that there was prayer being led over a loudspeaker before a football game," Chris Line, a legal fellow with the organization, said at the time. "Even when students lead it, when it is on school property like that, everyone in attendance is going to think it was school sponsored."

Sports events are often where schools have gotten in trouble in the past.

In 2017, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint with Hamilton County Schools after then-Central High head football coach Cortney Braswell bowed his head, prompting a local pastor to lead a prayer while a player was down on the field.

Nearly a decade before that incident at Central High, former Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales acknowledged he had heard prayer broadcast over loudspeakers at football games before and always wondered when someone might protest.

"But things are handled a little differently in different areas of the country," Scales said at the time. "This does not need to be something that divides our community. None of the school cases that have been litigated are designed to keep anyone from praying or exercising their religious freedom."

For many, though, prayer is an important part of their life and should take place at school.

Jay Fowler, director of the local chapter of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, said living out their faith is an important part of many students' lives. Chattanooga's chapter of FCA works with around 3,500 students in 60 middle schools, high schools and colleges in the five-county area of Bledsoe, Hamilton, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie, he said.

"It's hard to separate those kinds of things when a faith is a part of someone's personality, their persona, it's just such a vital part of who they are," Fowler said. "And we're thankful we're in a country where students have the right to pray on a public school campus as a part of their expression as their faith."

In September, dozens of young people took part in the annual See You at the Pole rally, where students gather at a school's flagpole to pray. The rallies were advertised at 18 schools, including Ooltewah High, Grace Academy and the Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts. Some included singing along with the prayer.

photo Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Students of McCallie School gather at their flagpole to pray on Sept 25 as part of the annual "See You at the Pole" rally.

Christin Garland, a junior at East Hamilton High School, said at the time she was inspired by the number of people who gathered at her school, around 50 students. Many were new faces to being open about their faith, she said.

"I just love getting to see everyone at our school rally - you get to see Jesus here," Garland said.

Local religious institutions also are often some of the biggest supporters of local schools, even local public schools.

Before the school year began, hundreds of educators from around the area were treated to a drive-through lunch and prayer in Ooltewah. People received free sandwiches, burritos or pizza and could receive prayers, if they wanted. The Samaritan Center has hosted the event for years.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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