Teaching Religion in Public Schools

AU Reminds Tenn. County Public School That Coaches Can’t Lead Prayer – And The Crowd Goes Wild

  Rob Boston

Public high school baseball and football coaches in Putnam County, Tenn., were leading students in prayers after games. They’re not allowed to do that, so Americans United’s attorneys wrote to officials at the district and informed them that these violations (and some others) must stop.

In its letter, AU noted, “Public schools exist to serve all schoolchildren regardless of faith or belief and must be welcoming to all. When public schools include prayer or proselytizing content in school activities, they convey disrespect for students’ and families’ beliefs and send the message that students who do not practice the officially favored faith or do not participate in the prayer are unwelcome outsiders who do not belong.”

District officials have acknowledged that we’re right. In a statement to a local TV station, they said, “We … understand that faculty and staff members can not [sic] lead or participate in the spontaneous student-led prayers.”

That should have been the end of the matter, but when word got out in the community that AU had raised these issues, some players and community members decided to gather on the field at the end of a recent football game and pray.

“Satan’s power was defeated tonight,” one man crowed on Facebook, and right-wing media sites have been making a big deal over the group prayer.

Here’s what they’ve overlooked: Americans United wrote to the school district because coaches and other employees in the district were leading students in prayer – something the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated nearly 60 years ago.

Students have the right to pray in public schools in a non-disruptive manner. In this case, it would be nice if the football players acknowledged that not everyone is Christian or favors public prayer – after all, Jesus himself recommended not making a public display of your piety – but the thing AU wanted to end in Putnam County was coercion or pressure to pray emanating from school officials. And we did that.

If some of the good folks in Putnam County want to believe they’ve pulled one over on us, that’s fine. AU won’t quibble over that. But rather than gloat, I’d recommend that students, parents and staff members in the district read AU’s “Know Your Rights” guides that outline what’s permissible and what’s not when it comes to religion in public schools.

Who knows? They might just learn something.


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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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