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A minister prays at the opening of a 2016 panel discussion for parents of Ooltewah High School students who had come to learn about the signs of and solutions to bullying at Ooltewah United Methodist Church.

When parents send their children to school these days, they not surprisingly feel a little helpless. When they let their teenagers borrow the car, they worry about what might happen between leaving the driveway and returning to it.

Columbine, drunk drivers, Sandy Hook, opioids, Woodmore, sexual assaults, Orlando. What can they do to give themselves a sense of calm over what they can't control?

In Fyffe, Alabama, 66 miles from Chattanooga on Sand Mountain, community members for several years have organized a back-to-school worship service in the Fyffe High School gymnasium.

It is an event, organizers said, in which participants can be "praying for God's protective hand" over their children.

It's exactly the kind of activity that promotes the family and the sense of community that have been too often hollowed out by a culture that elevates the individual over the larger good.

Attendance at the service clearly is not required of parents or students. But many understandably want to come. Praying for their students, their children's friends, their teachers and coaches, and praying that nothing horrific or tragic will befall them during the upcoming school year, is something parents can do. It is a way of linking hearts and minds with others who feel a similar helplessness.

At Sunday's event, pastors and other faith leaders also prayed for those involved in the weekend mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The atrocities were just the kind of acts over which parents feel helpless, even in Fyffe, with an estimated 2017 population of 1,018.

Hanging over this year's service, though, was the pall of a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which suggested "DeKalb County Schools must make certain that its teachers and administrators are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters."

The organization said a "concerned DeKalb County Schools parent" had said the event was being organized and promoted by school faculty members and was promoted on the school's official Facebook page.

The post, now removed, said: "Please join us in praying for God's protective hand to be over our schools, facilities, and students."

But DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Jason Barnett said the school and faculty were not behind it, that community members had planned it. It also had been approved by the school board just as the body approves other such non-school events held at the school.

"To my knowledge," he told Fox News, "no administrators or faculty members were involved in the organization and planning of the event. I want to add that the board did not promote this event, but rather permitted an announcement of the event on the school Facebook page just as it permits others to provide information about community events. The 'us' in the Facebook announcement refers to the organizers of the event, not the school or the school board.

"I do not believe we broke the law in having this event on the Fyffe High School campus," Barnett said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, without the facts, called the service a clear violation of church and state and promised an investigation.

The service, according to a report from Huntsville's WAAY, began with singing and concluded with the 350 people in attendance — more than a third of the town — holding hands and praying for the safety of the children and the schools.

The crowd, according to participants, was larger than usual because of the controversy, and perhaps because of the mass shootings in the 24 hours or so before the service.

"Anytime you have kids and they're not with you and they're in the school system," Jon Mayes, a pastor who spoke at the service and a parent, told the television station, "you worry about them. Are they safe?

"Its a scary world," he said. "That's why we are praying for God's protection over our schools."

We couldn't imagine the torment and anguish over losing a child to a school shooting, to a mass shooting at Walmart or to a drunk driver, and we couldn't imagine being told we couldn't gather with other like-minded individuals to pray for our children's safety at a community event.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation claims it simply wants to protect "the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church," but too often its interference feels like a bull in a china shop, its intent simply to charge in without the facts and without thought to the feelings of those involved and crush the practice of religion altogether.

When it's time for school to begin in 2020, we imagine Fyffe residents again will be gathering in the high school gym to pray for students, teachers and leaders. And perhaps when they think of their ordeal of the year before they'll think of the verse from Genesis, "You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he's doing today."

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