Superintendent bans 'led' prayers at ball games
By Gordon Boyd
SODDY-DAISY, HAMILTON COUNTY (WRCB) - Thou shalt not lead prayers at school ball games.
Superintendent Dr. Jim Scales has issued that commandment to all Hamilton County Schools after receiving a letter from a national group claiming such prayers violate your First Amendment rights.
The mascot for Soddy-Daisy High School isn't happy.
"It sets more of a Christian tone," says Soddy-Daisy senior Chase Burnette. It makes the game less 'grr' and in your face."
But Dr. Scales says he had little choice. "Once someone presses the issue, we know how the Courts have ruled."
That 'someone' is a Soddy-Daisy student, according to a letter Dr. Scales received from the Wisconsin-based 'Freedom From Religion Foundation.'
"There is no happy medium", Foundation attorney Rebecca Markert tells Eyewitness News. "It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor and lead prayers at public high school events and graduation ceremonies."
Burnette believes that anybody offended simply should cover his or her ears. But the Foundation says that the school district can't unring the bell.
"Replacing a led prayer with a moment of silence is unacceptable, because the schools have shown that a 'culture of prayer' exists," Markert says. "However, students themselves could keep holding prayer circles, provided that they lead the prayers without any participation by school leaders or coaches."
Burnette calls that an undesirable compromise.
"The whole reason our forefathers came to America is for freedom of religion, and I think expressing it in a crowd is just better," he says.
"If it is over the loudspeaker, the cheerleaders and the football team--everybody, gets into it."
Dr. Scales admits he'd known that Soddy-Daisy, and other Hamilton County high schools, began athletic events with prayers, aired over the public address systems, but chose not to make it an issue until the Foundation did.
"If I had, they (parents & voters) would have run me out of town on a rail," he says. "Let's face it, it's the real world we live in."
The Foundation has declined to identify the student(s) who raised the issue. That angers school board member Rhonda Thurman, whose District includes Soddy-Daisy.
"You should have the courage to stand up for what you believe in," Thurman says. "Come forward, tell us who you are. Stand your ground.
Dr. Scales has asked school district attorneys to advise the Board how to set firm policy regarding prayers. "We could have that information by next week."
According to the First Amendment Center, The US Supreme Court has ruled in five school prayer cases:
Engel v. Vitale, (1962)
Any kind of prayer, composed by public school districts, even nondenominational prayer, is unconstitutional government sponsorship of religion.
Abington Township School Dist v Schempp (1963)
The second so-called "school prayer" decision. But it was the more far-reaching — prohibiting school officials from organizing or leading prayers and devotional Bible reading in public schools. The Abington v. Schempp decision invalidated a devotional Bible-reading requirement in Pennsylvania; a case consolidated with it, Murray v. Curtlett, struck down a similar law in Maryland. Abington v. Schempp requires that teachers and administrators neither promote nor denigrate religion — a commitment to state neutrality that protects the religious freedom of students of all faiths and no faith.
Wallace v. Jaffree, (1985)
State's moment of silence at public school statute is unconstitutional where legislative record reveals that motivation for statute was the encouragement of prayer. Court majority silent on whether "pure" moment of silence scheme, with no bias in favor of prayer or any other mental process, would be constitutional.
Lee v. Weisman, (1992)
Unconstitutional for a school district to provide any clergy to perform nondenominational prayer at elementary or secondary school graduation. It involves government sponsorship of worship. Court majority was particularly concerned about psychological coercion to which children, as opposed to adults, would be subjected, by having prayers that may violate their beliefs recited at their graduation ceremonies.
Santa Fe v. Doe, (2000)
The Supreme Court held a school may not ask students to lead prayers over the public address system before football games. The Court found the situation in Santa Fe, TX, similar to the situation in the Lee v. Weisman case. Santa Fe's practice was not a matter of private student speech, but of students speaking on behalf of and at the request of school officials. This factor changed the situation from being one of true private student speech to school-sponsored and -endorsed speech. This case demonstrated that schools cannot use a proxy, such as outside clergy or even students, to engage in activities they are themselves forbidden from practicing.
CHATTANOOGA (Times Free Press) - 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.
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