Southern culture traditionally embraces prayer and religion in public life without regard for outside opinion, political affiliations or legal interpretations.
With few exceptions, a prayer opens most public government meetings and sporting events in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. In many cases a local pastor leads the prayer, but in a few, including the Chattanooga City Council and the Hamilton County Commission, government officials sometimes pray.
The issue of separating church and state popped up in North Georgia last week when someone complained about Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders holding up banners bearing Bible phrases at football games.
Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese banned the banners, prompting a local outcry that led to a support rally Tuesday night.
Southern heritage and traditions have always had a strong religious background, said William Power, professor of religion at the University of Georgia.
“In the South, you primarily have a Christian tradition,” he said. “That obviously is going to be expressed in forms of public worship.”
Some people are attracted to the region because of the prevalence of religion and spirituality.
Ken Medley, a newcomer to the Chattanooga area, said he and his wife moved from Tampa, Fla., because of the strong spiritual traditions he found.
“That is still a rich part of the threads that make up the tapestry of the community here,” he said. “If you take that away, then we’re just like every other place.”
But Dr. Power said that people also need to be sensitive to other religions that are a growing presence in the community.
Despite prevailing opinion in a majority Christian community, public expression of religion can be against the law, a local attorney said.
“There is a point where mixing religion with public gatherings becomes unconstitutional,” said lawyer John Cavett. “It’s not a bright line of demarcation; there’s a gray area.”
In the context of high school activities, part of the issue hinges on the ages of the people involved and how readily they can leave the event or ignore religious activities taking place, he said.
While he agrees the banners held up by the LFO cheerleaders are an unconstitutional promotion of religion, “it would be more clearly unconstitutional if it was happening during the school day at the school,” since students are legally compelled by the state to be at school, he said.
“It’s a little bit different at a high school football game,” he said.
Bill Nigut, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Catoosa County schools chief made the right call.
He agreed with Mr. Cavett that the issue is clearer in schools, where students are required to attend.
But Brian Haney, pastor of Anchor of Hope Baptist Church in Rossville, disagrees.
“I definitely think they have a right to display those Christian banners and signs. I don’t see that they’re breaking any laws,” he said.
An old dispute
The debate over freedom of religion and separation of church and state is not new.
The Scopes trial, which put Dayton, Tenn., on the map in 1925, came about because a high school teacher taught his students the theory of evolution. That violated a state law mandating that students learn creationism as the origin of mankind.
When Ringgold built a new city hall in 1999 the building included the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Both were removed a year or two later under the threat of legal action, according to City Manager Dan Wright.
Hamilton County commissioners voted shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to post the Ten Commandments. A federal judge ordered them removed in May 2002.
A plaque containing the Ten Commandments has hung for years in a hallway near an entrance to the Bradley County Courthouse.
And while many local government buildings no longer display biblical images, most city council and commission meetings are still opened with prayer.
Hamilton County Commission Chairman Curtis Adams said the only person who could stop the prayers before commission meetings would be a federal judge.
“Anybody tries to stop that, we’ll certainly fight that,” he said. “That’d be a dirty fight.”
When Mr. Adams was sworn in as chairman last month, he asked commissioners to get pastors from their districts to conduct the weekly prayers.
In City Council meetings, most prayers in the council petition a “supreme being” and not a specific entity, said Council Chairman Jack Benson.
“I don’t think it’s promoting one religion over another,” he said.
Mr. Nigut said governmental entities that open their meetings with a prayer are likely crossing the constitutional line.
“They’re really unacceptable,” he said. “Are they well-intentioned? Sure. The fact of the matter is we would argue that this is unfortunately a clear violation of the Constitution because it essentially promotes religion.”
While there is no prayer offered at the beginning of Hamilton County Board of Education meetings, the agenda always includes a meditation. After the Pledge of Allegiance, a school system employee offers some sort of inspirational story, poem or thought, sometimes religious in nature, officials said.
Dade County Schools Superintendent Patty Priest said prayer is part of every school board meeting and student-led prayers usually happen at the beginning of ballgames.
Right or wrong, it’s part of the culture, Ms. Priest said.
“We pray every day. If you’re in the school business, you better pray,” she laughed.
Several staff writers contributed to this story.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...
Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...