published Friday, October 11th, 2013

Tennessee GOP scolds American Civil Liberties Union over prayer at high school football games

Members of the Hixson Wildcats pray before taking the field against the Tyner Academy Rams at Anthony S. Martino Field on Sept. 6.
Members of the Hixson Wildcats pray before taking the field against the Tyner Academy Rams at Anthony S. Martino Field on Sept. 6.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
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Should prayer be allowed before high school football games?

NASHVILLE — State Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney is accusing the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee of using "scare tactics" to "intimidate" public schools into abandoning prayer at high school football games.

In a letter sent Thursday to school superintendents statewide, Devaney says that "with a new week of football games set to kick off, we write today to tell you we stand with you and the millions of Tennesseans who want to express their rights and not cower to the liberal self-interests of a leftwing organization."

Devaney charges that an ACLU-Tennessee letter sent last week to superintendents "misses a very basic principle about the First Amendment: It was written -- not to protect government from religion -- but to ensure religious freedoms are not violated by the government."

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU-Tennessee, said her letter wasn't directed at student athletes praying of their own accord. It's really aimed at coaches and other employees of government-run schools who push it on students, she said.

"I'm glad that we're on the same page with Mr. Devaney," Weinberg said. "His letter reinforces the central point of our letter -- that the [Constitution's] establishment clause and First Amendment are intended to ensure that religious freedom is not challenged by the government."

The letter battle comes as a different group, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, steps up activity in Southeast Tennessee by challenging pregame prayer traditions at South Pittsburg High School in Marion County, Tenn. Last year, the group targeted Ridgeland High School in Walker County, Ga.

It's a pretty common practice in the South. In a Chattanooga Times Free Press survey conducted last month, 32 public school coaches in Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama professed their Christian faith and said they endorse some form of team prayer.

The coaches consider the increased activity by the Wisconsin foundation a violation of their religious rights and of their ability to mold the boys on their team into moral young men.

"We as coaches fail if we only teach football, so we try to set an example of how a Christian man handles any situation," said Ridgeland High coach Mark Mariakis, who later added "we want to prepare our kids for the battle on Friday nights but we also want to prepare them for the spiritual battle. Make no mistake, there's a spiritual warfare going on and it's for the souls of our kids."

Instead of mentioning the Freedom From Religion group, Devaney takes off after the much better-known ACLU-Tennessee.

The state GOP has also started an online petition, leading one state Democratic legislative official to roll his eyes and speculate if it's an effort to develop a data base of potential contacts for Republicans' political purposes in 2014.

The ACLU-Tennessee, Devaney says in his letter, is "willfully" misrepresenting a point in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe case.

"The Court has found "(n)othing in the Constitution ... prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday," Devaney says.

That's not getting much of an argument from Weinberg, who said the purpose of her letter "was a gentle reminder to school superintendents that they should commit or recommit to protecting religious freedom for all the students in their school system, including the religious freedom of their athletes."

"This letter doesn't talk about student-led prayer," she said. "This letter talks about the role of the coach and the recognition that he or she would be violating the provisions of the First Amendment if they promoted and endorsed religious activities."

In a news release last week, Weinberg said the Supreme Court established in the Santa Fe case from Texas that a district permitting its student body to vote at the beginning of each school year whether or not to have prayers before football games also violates the establishment clause.

But in her letter to superintendents, Weinberg also said "contrary to protests voiced by those who desire to use the public schools as a forum for promoting their particular religious beliefs, the Supreme Court's holding in Santa Fe is not anti-religious and does not interfere with the rights of students, guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause, to worship and pray according to the dictates of their own consciences."

Absence of school-endorsed prayer from a public school's athletic event "does not impose any burden on the ability of students to personally affirm their religious beliefs," she wrote.

In 2012, Freedom from Religion charged Mariakis had taken players to pre-game church meals, complete with prayers, and that he pressured the public school students to attend a "Christian football camp."

Annie-Laurie Gaylor, co-founder and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said in September that it's not only prayers over the PA system and coaches involved in team prayer that have drawn the foundation's complaints. She cited student-led prayer on public school grounds, saying whether it's over the PA, on the field or in the locker room it violates the Constitution.

"There really isn't any controversy," Gaylor said. "Prayer of any kind, whether it's student-led or not, is not allowed.

That's not the ACLU-Tennessee's view on student-led prayer.

"I can't speak for any other organization," Weinberg said of the Freedom of Religion Foundation. "If we learned that football players could not bring their Bible to school and read it during practice breaks, ACLU would be the first group to support them. If we were told that students couldn't get together in the school yard during recess ... ACLU would protect their right to pray."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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