Tenn. Schools Halt Prayers at Sporting Events, Graduation

Tennessee schools have agreed to stop broadcasting prayers before football games and during graduation ceremonies after atheist organization Freedom From Religion Foundation complained to the district.

Hamilton County Superintendent Jim Scales told all county principals that prayer at school events are unconstitutional after receiving a letter from the FFR last week denouncing loud speaker prayers at school events. Soddy-Daisy High School of Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., was chiefly responsible for the FFRF complaint, which argued that prayer in public schools constituted government endorsement of religion.

Praising the move, FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor commented, "It's settled law by the [U.S.] Supreme Court that there may not be prayer in public schools – at graduation, in classrooms or during sports events. We're pleased that this appears to be resolved."

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In opposition, John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute noted, "It's unconstitutional according to the Supreme Court, but if you studied the founding fathers, it wouldn't be."

Whitehead said groups like FFRF are constantly "standing around" waiting to challenge religious expression. "It's not politically correct to be a Christian," he said.

FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Market sent the superintendent the letter last week after the family of a Soddy-Daisy student complained. The letter states, "The Supreme Court has struck down pre-game invocations even when they are student initiated."

The letter continues to address graduation prayer. "The Supreme Court has struck down prayers at public high school graduations. Even if student-initiated, school officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, or benediction at a public high school graduation."

The letter also included the names of several legal cases that FFRF has set legal presidents for with regard to prayer in public schools.

The students, faculty and staff of Hamilton County were off for fall break as the story broke and were unavailable to comment. However, Soddy-Daisy Principal John Maynard told, "I will comply with the superintendent's directive."

According to the letter, Soddy-Daisy High School started football games by leading the audience in prayer over a loud speaker. The school also allows the salutatorian to offer a prayer each year during the graduation ceremony.

Whitehead pointed out that the prayers are unconstitutional because of the nature of the prayers.

He said the prayers cannot be a planned part of school functions nor can they be broadcast over loud speakers and public announcement systems. "It's unfortunate, but that's the way these things are … Our schools have become totally secular."

While it may be unconstitutional for school students and faculty to have planned prayer at school functions, Whitehead said Christians should still proclaim their faith. "The thing that Christian students can do is have Christian clubs," he added.

Bryan Beauman, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney, said Christians and schools also need to know that religious speech is not banned in school. "You can't eliminate any and all reference to a student's faith," he said.

Instead, he said of schools, "The key thing that we would say is that individual students' rights must be protected."

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