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The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee distributed a letter to 135 school superintendents throughout the state last week, telling them that school-sponsored prayer before football games is a violation of the Constitution's First Amendment that prohibits an endorsement of religion. In response to similar letters sent in the past, legal groups have countered the ACLU's claims by arguing that students have a constitutional right to free speech and religious expression.
"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," Hedy Weinberg, the ACLU's executive director, said in an ACLU-Tennessee press release accompanying the letter.
"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," Weinberg adds. The press release goes on to say that the ACLU, a nonprofit group, chose to send the letter to certain superintendents reading reports of prayer at football games.
The letter also names previous Supreme Court cases that have forbade public prayer from being held in school or at school-led functions, such as football games, including the 1992 ruling in Lee v. Weisman and the 2000 ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.
Weinberg additionally told The Tennessean that the letter did not mention the ACLU pursuing legal action if the schools fail to stop the prayers; rather, she described the letter as being "a gentle reminder" on the issue. The executive director went on to say that her organization usually sends out one letter per year relating to school prayer.
The ACLU has been highly involved in several cases relating to religious expression at public schools. In one recent case, an Ohio school district reached a settlement with the ACLU, agreeing to keep a portrait of Jesus off of school premises and pay a $95,000 fine. The school had tried to keep the portrait, as it was a part of a "Hall of Honor" display meant to commemorate historical figures, and therefore had historical significance.
In another case in July, the ACLU accused Bloomfield Hills School District in Michigan of promoting a specific religion, arguing that the football coach at Lahser High School was sponsoring a prayer with his players before games and therefore endorsing religion. The Alliance Defending Freedom organization, a Christian legal group, argued that the ACLU was attempting to quell the students' constitutional right to free speech.
"There's no legitimate basis for public school officials to shut down students' private religious speech," Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer Rory Gray said in a letter from the legal group to the school district. "Students who express their faith before, during or after the school day are exercising their constitutional freedoms. Atheist groups are attempting to browbeat schools into believing otherwise," Gray added.
The organization's senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco added: "The Constitution should be the only permission slip students need to exercise their freedom of speech."
"We commend the school for not caving to the ACLU's unwarranted demands but urge them to amend their outdated policies so that this does not happen in the future and students' religious speech is protected," he added.