The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to put reason on an equal footing with religious faith, if only for a day, due to a new state law that requires the governor to designate the first weekend in August of each calendar year as "Tennessee's Weekend of Prayer Over Students."
Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker of FFRF, a national state-church watchdog with about 22,500 members nationwide and nearly 300 in Tennessee, sent a letter July 28 to Haslam, who signed the bill in April. FFRF promotes the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and educates the public on matters relating to nontheism.
The letter notes that not all Tennesseans believe in the power of prayer, and many object to mingling church and state in public schools.
"As a result, we are requesting on behalf of FFRF's members in Tennessee that you also issue a proclamation proclaiming a 'Day Of Reason' along the lines of the proposed proclamation included with this letter. Prescribing a dedicated Day of Reason is very timely in light of the 90th anniversary of the verdict on the infamous Scopes trial. We recognize, however, that you might also choose to declare a 'Week Of Reason,' or an alternative date near the beginning of the new school year. We look forward to working with you to finalize the details for an appropriate proclamation and dedication as requested."
FFRF's proposed proclamation:
WHEREAS, Tennessee students face many influences pulling them toward divisiveness, intolerance, and ignorance; and
WHEREAS, reason and free inquiry are the most effective agents against error; and
WHEREAS, Tennessee students should be intellectually challenged and enhanced by public schools that educate without dogma, coercion, or suspension of critical judgment; and
WHEREAS, Tennessee students should learn in their public schools to base opinions on reason and informed knowledge; and
WHEREAS, Tennessee students should be taught that they are responsible for their own actions and that they should judge human conduct by its intent and consequences; and
WHEREAS, Tennessee public schools should advance and impart knowledge, compassion, and rational understanding; and
WHEREAS, this summer marks the 90th anniversary of the verdict in the infamous Scopes trial, reminding us again to remain ever vigilant about the instruction of our youth:
NOW, THEREFORE, I, Bill Haslam, Governor of the State of Tennessee, do hereby proclaim and dedicate August 15, 2015, as the first annual "DAY OF REASON," to honor and encourage Tennessee's public schools as inviolate institutions of reason and human understanding, during the 2015-2016 school year and always.
I encourage all citizens to join me in honoring the worthy and critical undertakings of our public schools.
The weekend of prayer bill passed the state Senate 33-0 and the state House approved it 95-2. G.A. Hardaway and Johnnie Turner, both Memphis Democrats, were the only two to vote against it.
Behind the bill was a theocratic group called First Priority, which boasts a mission of "Uniting the Local Body of Christ With a Plan of Action to Influence the School with the Gospel." It trumpets "Christ-Church-Campus" and "The Hope of Christ in Every Student."
Trey Reynolds, Wilson County director of First Priority of Greater Nashville, told the Lebanon Democrat: "We are asking local churches all across Middle Tennessee to adopt a school to serve as the point person for prayer on that school campus. This will be a multi-church, multi-denominational time of prayer at each of the more than 200-plus schools. We would like to know which schools your church would be willing to adopt and serve as the liaison in your community."
According to a story in the Kingsport Times-News, a Christian group called Expecting God's Help is teaming with First Priority in Hawkins County. "The countywide event will be held Sunday, Aug. 2, from 2-4 p.m. on the campus of every public school in Hawkins County, including the independent Rogersville City School."
Haley Wherry, director of First Priority Blue Ridge, said, "Without prayer, these students will not be able to stand against the insurmountable odds they will face from childhood until they leave this world."
Four Hawkins County schools have a First Priority group in the school: Rogersville Middle School, Cherokee High School, Surgoinsville Middle School and Volunteer High School. Wherry is available "to assist local churches to empower their students as missionaries in the other middle and high schools of Hawkins County."
The "Prayer Walk Guide" includes a dozen items, including "10. Plead – the Blood of Jesus over the Schools, Homes and Students; 11. Bind – the powers of darkness in the Name of Jesus; 12. Loosen – the Power of God in our schools, our communities, our nation."
"It is a shocking misuse of governmental authority to pass a law, at a behest of a group intent on missionizing public school students, to designate a weekend to 'pray over students.' Public schools exist to educate, not proselytize. We will await the governor's response to our reasonable request with great interest," said FFRF's Gaylor.
James Tillman, a science teacher at Douglas County High School, Douglasville, Ga., won’t be preaching anymore to his students during class time.
Around the end of April, Tillman had a discussion about God with a student during class time, FFRF was told. When an atheist student spoke up, Tillman quizzed the student on his atheism, eventually promising to give him a book that might change his mind. About two weeks later, Tillman gave the student two copies of his own book titled Are You Sure There Is No God? He had signed them “Be blessed.” The book is subtitled on Amazon.com as “A book of miracles including my warning from Jesus himself.”
Tillman also allegedly showed his class a YouTube video of him preaching at his church, Christian Life Center.
Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler sent a letter May 26 asking the district to investigate Tillman’s behavior. “Public school employees are government actors and subject to the strictures of the Establishment Clause’s separation of church and state,” wrote Ziegler. “Teachers have access to a captive audience of students due to their position as public educators.”
FFRF also called for an investigation into Tillman’s role as the head of the school’s Christian club. “Given Tillman’s exceedingly inappropriate conduct in the incidents described above, we doubt his role with the First Priority Club is nonparticipatory as required by the Equal Access Act,” wrote Ziegler.
The superintendent replied June 2 that the principal reviewed the First Amendment with Tillman and was confident that “similar incidents” would not happen in the future.
Akron, Ohio, Public Schools teacher Brad Lingenhoel will no longer lead a religious club at Buchtel Community Learning Center. FFRF received a report that a group called Buchtel Devo Group put on a program called “Wednesday Morning Devotions” in the library before school. Lingenhoel allegedly started the group and stated at one meeting that he wanted higher student turnout, taking it upon himself to individually invite students who had arrived early to school.
FFRF’s complainant reported that Lingenhoel said he wanted to invite a variety of people to lead the meetings because “the students would get tired of just teachers running the group.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the district Dec. 4: “As you are aware, school employees may not run or even participate in religious clubs in public schools, nor can they promote religious clubs or invite students to attend. Any teachers involved . . . may only be present at student religious meetings in a supervisory capacity.”
In a lengthy response April 2, the district’s general counsel noted several school policies that agreed with FFRF’s position and said Lingenhoel had stopped participating in Wednesday Morning Devotions.
The Corsicana Independent School District in Texas will no longer let Gideons International distribute bibles. Students from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes were allowed to skip class in order to assist with the distribution, and students who did not accept the bible were reportedly told that “they would go to hell.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district’s superintendent explaining FFRF’s objections to the unconstitutional practice.
The superintendent responded June 2 that the district “intends to ensure compliance with the law” by banning future bible distributions.
The baseball coach of the Reagan Rattlers baseball team at Ronald Reagan High School, San Antonio, Texas, will no longer lead the team in the Lord’s Prayer at games. Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the district June 1 about an incident FFRF was alerted to.
“The Fifth Circuit, the controlling Court of Appeals in Texas, has specifically held that coach involvement in prayer at practices and games is unconstitutional,” Grover wrote.
The district’s attorney, Ricardo Lopez, wrote back promptly to say that the district would ensure that coaches and staff members would no longer lead prayer “at any time prior to, during, or after baseball games.”