Sumner County residents expressed their outrage over repeated attacks on their Christian faith at a town hall meeting in Tennessee and on Facebook.
Monday night, more than 1,200 parents, students and community members gathered in the gym of the Volunteer State Community College to express their anger over what has escalated into continued limitations of community members' religious rights.
Town hall attendees waved signs that read, "Evil thrives when good men and women do nothing" and "ACLU – Your freedom of religion is violating ours."
One by one, residents approached the microphone to proclaim their strong belief that they have the right to pray and express their religious beliefs publicly.
One woman announced, "I don't care if they take me to jail!" as the crowd cheered and shouted "Amen!" Another man told the crowd, "God is watching what we do in Sumner County."
The meeting was held after the Sumner County school board forbade teachers and administrators from bowing their heads to pray in the presence of students.
Prior to the board's decision, Westmoreland Principal Danny Kay Robinson admonished four football coaches for bowing their heads during a student-led prayer. The coaches did not pray aloud, but Robinson complained that their actions gave the appearance that the school endorses prayer. The coaches were required to sign letters acknowledging the school's policy on religious displays and conduct. Robinson also stated that failure to follow the policy would lead to termination.
The county is also being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. The ACLU of Tennessee charged that county's school system showed a pattern of religious activity including teacher-led prayer and Bible study sessions for students, religious music performed at school events and opening prayers at school board meetings that violate the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause.
"Public schools should seek to create an environment conducive to learning by all students and not act as vehicles proselytizing for religious or anti-religious beliefs," said Tricia Herzfeld, ACLU of Tennessee Legal director.
A frustrated audience member responded to incidents Monday saying, "We're getting tired of it."
The frustration has even spilled onto the social networking site Facebook. The page "Stop the ACLU attack on Sumner County Schools" has 1,527 supporters as of Tuesday.
The American Center for Law and Justice is representing the county board of education in court against the ACLU of Tennessee.
ACLJ Senior Counsel David French told the crowd Monday he sympathized with their anger but warned that school faculty must walk a fine line in the expression of their faith. School principals, teachers and administrators are essentially school employees and thus have to right pray during their off time, but they cannot give students the appearance of endorsing faith, French explained.
Students, however, as private citizens are entitled to hold student-led prayer and Bible groups. French urged school officials to protect this right.
"It is the obligation of the school to protect those student rights," French said. "Student speech has protection under the law so long as it isn't school-sponsored speech."
Still, audience members were not comforted by the words offered. Lee Bailey commented to the Tennessee Religious Freedom Fund, "I've been most disappointed in the advice ... offered by the ACLJ."
Bailey continued, "Our school board has bowed to the wishes of the ACLU and so far, we've seen our county coaches brow-beaten and forced into signing pledges to not even bow their heads when others are praying. In other words, they can no longer even show decent respect when others pray. This is a travesty and we in Sumner County who count ourselves as Christians must take a stand or [we] stand in danger of losing all our rights as Christians."
Sumner County resident Shaynee Turner is planning a pregame community prayer rally Thursday.
"We're perfectly within our rights [to hold a prayer rally], as I understand." Turner told the local Channel 5 News. "We're part of the community. Why can't we go out and do this?"