A Wisconsin-based “freethinking” group is demanding that local school leaders quit allowing prayer at public events.
At the request of students from Soddy-Daisy High School, the Freedom from Religion Foundation wrote a letter to Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales last week, calling the Christian prayers heard over the loudspeaker at football games and graduation ceremonies an “unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”
The organization’s staff attorney, Rebecca Markert in Madison, Wis., demanded in the letter that the school system begin an investigation into the allegations and take steps to “remedy this serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”
“It’s clearly illegal what they’re doing,” Markert said. “We’ll give [school officials] a couple of weeks to do an investigation and formulate a response.”
Scales received the letter Monday and was not yet ready to comment because his legal counsel was out of town, said Danielle Clark, spokeswoman for the school system.
A phone and e-mail message sent to Soddy-Daisy Principal John Maynard were not returned Tuesday.
Hamilton County Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman, who represents Soddy-Daisy, said the prayers were part of the school’s tradition, and that anyone who didn’t want to hear could “put their fingers in their ears.
“Everybody is offended by something,” she said. “I’m offended by a lot of those little girls running around with their thong panties showing, but I can’t make that go away.”
‘NO LEG TO STAND ON’
Annie Laurie Gaylor, director and co-president of the foundation, called Thurman’s remarks “irresponsible.” She cited several U.S. Supreme Court cases in which prayer before football games and graduation ceremonies were found to be unconstitutional.
The school system, she said, “has no leg to stand on” and the practice should be stopped immediately.
“Students are a captive audience, they’re required to go to school. When there is a violation like a prayer at a school, they’re really vulnerable; it’s a violation of their civil rights,” she said.
“This is the harm of religion in government, that the people who are religious believe they are the true citizens and the other people have no rights,” she said. “It’s very dangerous to go down this path of government and religion; someone will always be on the outs.”
Gaylor mentioned another area case from 2006 in which students from Bryan College, a Christian school in Dayton, Tenn., were coming to give “hour-long Bible instruction” to students in Rhea County’s public school system. The foundation eventually took that case to federal court and won, Gaylor said.
Many First Amendment violations crop up during sporting events, she said.
“It’s a lack of understanding where their personal rights stop and other people’s civil liberties begin,” she said. “It’s perfectly ridiculous to have prayer at football games. Is their deity going to help them win the game? Whoever prays the hardest wins the game? I don’t think so.”
But parent Jim Rogers, whose son Jason is manager of the football team at East Hamilton School, said he believes public Christian prayer falls under his free speech rights.
“Our country was founded on the principle of religious suffrage and the freedom to express that religion. They incorporated God into our money, the oath of office, our legal system, the Pledge of Allegiance. You cannot find one aspect of our secular government that doesn’t make reference to our creator,” he said.
“People who find Christianity contrary to their beliefs shouldn’t be offended that [Christians] have the freedom to express their religious beliefs.”
In Hamilton County, religion in public schools is far from uncommon. From prayer before sporting events and privately funded Bible-history classes to student-led group prayers and Bible verse classroom posters, Christianity is widely accepted.
But the times may be changing, says David Eichenthal, president of the local Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. As more people move into the area, he said, there is likely to be a greater population of people who push against the status quo, including the tradition of pre-game prayer.
“As Chattanooga and [Hamilton County] continue to grow, the more we view things to open us up to that diversity, the stronger our region will be,” he said. “To the extent that we make people uncomfortable or feel out of place who come to the community, that could have an impact,” he said.
Michael Dzik, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, said that while he disagrees with public Christian prayer in schools, he also recognizes that he lives in a predominantly Christian community and many times people are unaware that their actions may be considered offensive.
Last year at her elementary school, Dzik’s daughter, Rachel, turned down a free Gideon Bible donated to the school by the evangelical Christian organization. She was put in an uncomfortable situation, he said, because all of her friends were taking the book and wondered why Rachel wasn’t.
“I was not thrilled that that happened ... it’s a touchy situation,” he said. “It’s very challenging to keep church and state separate.”
“I think that the [school] administration needs to be very sensitive to these types of things. This is not a Jewish issue, this is not a Christian issue. It’s a people issue, and having a basic respect for other people and their beliefs.”
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...