Parents Defend Religious Freedom in School Prayer Suit

A federal judge heard arguments Thursday morning on whether a Tennessee elementary school can allow a parents' prayer group to meet and pray for the teachers and students on campus.

A lawsuit filed by a Wilson County couple contends that Lakeview Elementary School promoted Christianity by permitting a group called Praying Parents to leave "you've been prayed for" cards for teachers and students and organizing religious activities such as Christmas programs, See You at the Pole, and the National Day of Prayer.

Former school principal Wendell Marlowe recalled in court Thursday that his past meeting with the couple, identified only as Jane and John Doe, "was not very cordial."

"You see what you're making me do?" the principal quoted John Doe as asking. "Mrs. Doe, raising her voice, stood up and made remarks directed toward me. Mr. Doe followed. He practically yelled at me."

Marlowe said he wished he had another opportunity to talk with the Does calmly about the situation.

The plaintiff, whose child attended kindergarten at the school in 2005-2006, had complained to school administrators about the activities. In September 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of the anonymous family. They said they withdrew their child from the school and homeschooled him to protect their child from Christian proselytizing.

Jennifer Walker of Praying Parents said on Wednesday that the group held regular meetings at the elementary school with the support of the school's administration. Meetings were held before and during school hours and the group distributed fliers for students to take home, Walker said.

Court documents also said the prayer group had their link on Lakeview Elementary School's Web site and were allowed to run announcements in the school newsletter.

Marlowe, named as a defendant in the case, confirmed that he allowed Praying Parents to distribute fliers at the school and link to the school's Web site but said he would have allowed other groups the same access if they had asked.

ACLU attorney Eddie Schmidt argued before the court Wednesday that the activities by Praying Parents are unconstitutional because the school facilitated the group's activities, teachers participated in the activities and they occurred within the context of the school.

Since the lawsuit, the link has been removed and the school got a new principal. Also, the school's assistant principal, Yvonne Smith, testified Thursday that many of the contested religious activities, including proselytizing, no longer take place on the campus.

Praying Parents, represented by Alliance Defense Fund, intervened in the suit, claiming the plaintiffs are violating their religious freedom rights.

"It's important to live out my faith by the way I act and react to people, not necessarily by hitting them over the head with a Bible," said Walker, whose two children attend Lakeview.

She told the court that along with the fliers advertising See You at the Pole and National Day of Prayer, the group also gave teachers gifts of appreciation that said the teachers are prayed for.

Teachers "should be able to be kind, have a smile on their face and have a light about them that comes from their faith. I don't think they should cut this off," added Walker.

The plaintiffs had proposed a settlement but the Wilson County School Board rejected it on Tuesday. Terms of the settlement were not released.

"I'm thankful," said Lee Miller, a Wilson County parent whose child attends the school, in a report by The Tennessean. "To settle with ACLU doesn't make any sense. We have a better case than the ACLU."

Supporting the activities, Niki Fox, whose young son was diagnosed with cancer, said the prayers "gave us so much comfort. It really blows my mind that that comfort could be the source of someone else's discomfort to such extreme. I just don't get it," according to Nashville's WKRN.

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