For most of American history, God was welcome in the public schools. It’s still true for many school systems across the Nashville area, where open prayer is held on school grounds, sports teams pray before games and high school graduations are routinely held in churches.
But objections from families and national civil liberties groups find Middle Tennessee at the center of the litigious argument over separating public schools and church.
The debate’s most recent flashpoint is an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Sumner County School Board. The ACLU claims the system allowed the Gideons to give out Bibles at schools, gave the OK for a minister to evangelize to students and hosted graduations at Long Hollow Baptist Church. Wilson and Cheatham counties have settled similar lawsuits in recent years, ending up on the losing end. The practice of high school graduations at churches was prevalent this spring in Middle Tennessee.
Disputes over religion in school show no sign of abating in Tennessee or nationally, said Larry Crain, a Brentwood lawyer who is senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal group.
“The school is always going to be the battleground,” he said. “That’s where the reality of these competing views occurs — between those who espouse an airtight, hermetically sealed separation of church and state and those who believe there should be some toleration or accommodation of students’ religious views.”
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based civil rights organization, agrees.
“The biggest battleground of the culture war is still the public school system,” Lynn said. “That hasn’t changed in 50 years.”
God and graduation
Courts have made contradictory rulings about religious activity at graduations — especially about whether graduations can be held in churches and whether God is banned from those ceremonies.
A federal court in Connecticut ruled that a school district was endorsing religion by holding graduation at a megachurch. But a federal judge in Wisconsin came to the opposite conclusion, saying that holding graduation in a church is fine.
In Sumner County, three schools held graduations at Long Hollow Baptist Church this spring. In Nashville, the Academy at Old Cockrill held its graduation at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ. Middle College High in Franklin held its graduation at The People’s Church.
At least three Williamson County schools also held baccalaureate services — which are traditionally voluntary religious services — at local churches.
Courts have ruled those services unconstitutional in the past, said Hedy Weinberg, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. They are allowed only if they are sponsored by a community group or church.
“The public school cannot participate [in] or endorse such events,” she said.
But at least one school official at Centennial High School in Franklin advised the students who planned that school’s baccalaureate. Sandra Joyner, a recently retired assistant principal at Centennial, said she advised the group and that the Parent Teacher Student Organization paid for the event, which was advertised on the school website.
Joyner said no school officials spoke at the event, which she said was more of a motivational event than a religious ceremony, though it did include a prayer.
“It’s a smaller, more intimate ceremony and strictly voluntary,” she said.
Having school officials lead or help plan such services can be problematic, said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar for the Freedom Forum.
Church and state
Haynes sees several reasons the church and school conflicts continue.
One is habit. Some schools have allowed prayer at graduations or other religious activities for years and no one has raised objections, Haynes said.
Also, he said, people don’t always see schools as government entities.
“They don’t see school as being part of the government,” he said. “They think of them as being ‘our schools’ and as belonging to the community.”
Finally, Haynes said, the rules that govern religion in schools are sometimes murky.
Some things are clearly banned — such as teacher-led prayer or allowing an outside group, like the Gideons, to hand out Bibles.
Other things — like having students pray or mention God during a graduation speech or holding school events in a church — have been banned by some courts and allowed by others.
“The terrible answer that no one wants to hear is that everything depends on the context,” Haynes said. “These things can’t be answered in black and white.”
That answer doesn’t sit well with Sher Flick, of Spring Hill.
Flick’s son, Dylan, skipped graduation ceremonies at Independence High School in part because he said the ceremony included a student-led prayer. That prayer was part of a pattern of too much religion in her son’s schooling, Flick said.
Her son had to take several Advanced Placement exams at Thompson Station Baptist Church. That church has hosted concerts for local schools as well as an honors night for Independence High School and Heritage Middle School.
Because Dylan received an academic award this year, he had to go to church to get it.
His mom — who grew up as an evangelical Christian but now considers herself a Quaker — was not pleased.
“I basically never want to step foot in a religious center when it is a school event,” Flick said. “There have to be other options.”
Dylan agrees. He said he has been ostracized at times in school for not being a Baptist. And he felt like taking tests in a local church was distracting because of Christian posters on the wall of the testing room.
“It didn’t feel right at all,” he said.
Flick’s mom said she complained to school officials but didn’t get much help.
“What’s bad is that if you decide to speak out, it makes you look like you hate religion,” she said. “And that’s not true at all.”
Weinberg’s group has published a guide for school leaders about how to handle religion in schools. They also get regular complaints from families, she said.
“At any time we are investigating six to eight complaints from across the state about religious activities,” Weinberg said.
In a quandary
Jeff Lovingood, a pastor at Long Hollow Baptist Church, is in a quandary about graduations. It appears the American legal system is similarly confused.
Lovingood, a Cleveland, Tenn., native, said the church has good intentions.
“Our philosophy with schools is that we want to be good neighbors,” he said.
Lovingood said that allowing schools to use their facility is part of being a good citizen in the community. A youth minister often visits students during the lunch hour, and church volunteers offer to assist the school.
Some Christian groups have badmouthed groups such as the ACLU that sue schools over religious issues. Lovingood rejects that approach.
“You can’t be a good citizen in the community and disobey the rules,” he said.
Some courts have held that student valedictorians can mention God in their speeches but they can’t lead prayers. However, a federal judge in San Antonio ruled recently that students at the Medina Valley Independent School District in Texas can’t use any religious language during graduation.
“These students, and all other persons scheduled to speak during the graduation ceremony, shall be instructed not to present a prayer, to wit, they shall be instructed that they may not end their remarks with ‘amen’ or ‘in a (deity’s name) we pray,’ and they shall not otherwise deliver a message that would commonly be understood to be a prayer, nor use the word ‘prayer,’ ” wrote Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery.
Lynn of Americans United, which sued to block prayers at the Texas graduation, said the judge’s decision was correct. He said prayer has no place at a public school graduation.
“This is a public school event,” he said. “You don’t get to do whatever you want.”
Within days, an appeals court reversed Biery’s decision.
Crain, who assisted with the appeal in the Texas case, said students can discuss their faith during graduation, given the proper guidelines. Banning God from graduation is wrong, he said, because it treats religious activity with hostility.
He said some groups want to completely separate religion from schools.
“We believe that is simply unattainable,” he said.