Taking extra precautions for Wednesday's See You At The Pole day prayer, school officials in Sumner County, Tenn., forbade teachers and administrators from bowing their heads to pray while students were watching.
The decision was made after a principal at Westmoreland Middle School previously witnessed football coaches at the school bowing their heads during a post-game prayer in the end zone.
Though the coaches did not pray aloud, Principal Danny Kay Robinson complained of the coaches’ public participation in a student-led prayer.
Calling the coaches to his office, Robinson required them to sign letters acknowledging the school’s policy on religious displays or conduct and stated that failure to follow policy would lead to termination, The Tennessean reported.
The coaches were reminded that student-led events must remain student-led, as David French, an American Center for Law and Justice attorney, related to Fox News Radio.
“Teachers cannot give the appearance of endorsing the student’s message,” French said.
In response to the display of religious participation by the coaches at the game, nervous school board officials sent home guidelines to staff members for Wednesday’s See You At The Pole prayer event, where Christian students across the nation gathered at their campus flag poles to pray before class started.
Though teachers and administrators were allowed to supervise the event, they were not allowed to engage in any conduct that appeared as if they were endorsing the event, including bowing their heads.
“When a teacher or administrator participates in events such as See You At The Pole, it is possible for a student to confuse a teacher or administrator’s personal speech with their official speech,” the county guidelines read.
The stricter guidelines and religious tension at the schools are the result of a lawsuit filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Accusing schools of endorsing religious activity as far back as 2006, ranging from invocations at school board meetings, prayer over speakers, and youth ministers proselytizing on campus, the ACLU decided to take action to stop the exercise of alleged school-endorsed religion in public schools.
“The pattern and practice of school-sponsored religious activities in Sumner County is so egregious that we had no choice but to file this lawsuit,” ACLU-TN Executive Director Hedy Weinberg expressed in a statement.
Reacting to the lawsuit, school officials created new rules and policies for teachers and administrators, especially ones who serve as club sponsors. The educators now are forbidden to engage in any conduct that promotes or endorses a particular organization’s message or idea.
Following the incident at Westmoreland, pressured school officials said they wanted to take all precautions necessary for the prayer day, even if it meant forbidding the bowing of heads by school personnel, which many thought to be ridiculous and stretching personal limits.
Although school board policy did not specifically address silent prayer, Jeremy Johnson, a spokesman for Sumner County Schools, told The Tennessean that it was a gray area that should be avoided by employees nonetheless.
“This whole tempest is the poisonous fruit of the ACLU tree,” French, whose firm is representing the school district in the pending lawsuit, told Fox. “It’s easy to imagine in a scenario where they are dealing with this incredibly aggressive attack from the ACLU that a public prayer would cause people to question it.”
Many are outraged by the new policies and changes at the county schools. Pastor David Landrith, of Long Hollow Baptist Church, whose children attended Sumner County schools, recently commented about the situation in his personal blog.
“I believe the school system is heading in the wrong direction,” Landrith penned. “First, they have overreacted out of fear of a lawsuit. Because of this fear, they are instituting policies that are unnecessary and that I believe are unconstitutional. The irony is that in responding to the ACLU’s claims in an excessive way, they may actually be violating the First Amendment rights of teachers and students.”
“This idea that a coach or teacher cannot bow their head out of respect for student-led prayer is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Additionally, to tell the teachers that they cannot attend ‘See You At The Pole,’ which occurs before school hours, just doesn’t seem constitutional. Maybe the ACLU should represent the teachers!”
The senior pastor also found there was a lack of clarity in what the actual policies were. Though rules have been communicated, teachers have expressed to him that they are not completely sure what they can or cannot do in their own personal space as well as in the public sphere.
Things like wearing a cross, having a Bible on their desk and listening to Christian music in their office were among the teachers’ concerns.
“This is the United States of America!” Landrith affirmed. “You can’t ban people from practicing their faith in the marketplace – whether it’s a Muslim, Buddhist or a Christian. Christianity should not be favored over other religions. However, Christians should have the same rights as everyone else. I pray the Sumner County school system will rethink its policies and develop a balanced, measured response that protects the rights of everyone,” he added.
When asked if there were any complications or trouble during the See You At The Pole Day event, Sumner County school officials did not immediately respond to The Christian Post.