With the testing pressures and economic woes battering public education today, why do so many school leaders wander into First Amendment minefields and take on the explosive issue of the church/state divide?
Administrators of yet another high school – Soddy-Daisy High School in suburban Chattanooga – have been permitting Christian prayers over the loudspeaker at football games and graduation ceremonies. Contacted by some frustrated students from the school, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has taken up their cause and warned the Hamilton County superintendent about the “unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”
Under the law, students are free to bow their heads and pray in school. As the U.S. Department of Education states, students may “read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour or other non-instructional time.” But a public school can’t compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities and it can’t lead the entire school in prayer over the PA system.
According to the news story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press:
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.”
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.”
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.