SODDY-DAISY, Tenn. — Before the excited cheerleaders shook their pompoms and the quarterback put his hands under center, the loudspeaker blared a prayer. Then it was like, dude, in Jesus’ name we play!
Prayers before Trojan football games at Soddy-Daisy High School in suburban Chattanooga, Tenn., are a tradition despite being illegal. FFRF’s involvement started in October after a student wrote to ask for help after the public school’s administration had ignored several requests, including earlier ones about prayer at graduation. According to the student, the ACLU wouldn’t get involved without parental permission. The parents didn’t support the student’s position, however.
After FFRF legal staff investigated, Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales, citing several Supreme Court rulings that such prayers, at athletic events or graduation, unconstitutionally endorse religion. “The prayers are clearly offered as part of regularly scheduled school-sponsored functions,” Markert wrote.
Even when pregame invocations are student-initiated, Markert noted, the Supreme Court has “reasoned that because the football game was still a school-sponsored event, the fact that a student was leading the prayer did not cure the constitutional violation.” (The complainant believes the football prayers over the public address system were adult-led.)
School Board member Rhonda Thurman wasn’t happy when news of the complaint broke, reported the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The paper quoted Thurman as saying people who didn’t like the prayers could “put their fingers in their ears. Everybody is offended by something. 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.”
Scales e-mailed principals Oct. 19 that prayers over a loudspeaker at school athletic events had to stop: “It is important to comply with this [U.S. Supreme Court] ruling.” Scales took some heat locally for insisting schools should obey the law, and media often headlined the situation as outsiders coming in to ban prayer.
Scales told WRCB News he knew that county schools were praying at games, but chose not to make it an issue until the Foundation did. “If I had, they [residents] would have run me out of town on a rail,” he said.
The student sought anonymity, which angered Thurman. “You should have the courage to stand up for what you believe in. Come forward, tell us who you are. Stand your ground.”
Donna McKee, a fan in Loudon, told WATE News, that “that student ought to go and read the bible before he makes this against the school. I mean, one person? Come on. I say put him aside and say the prayer.”
However, the student told FFRF there would be no public comment “because of all the hate. It may have become a safety issue for my family if I were to talk to anyone.”
The next games
Before Soddy-Daisy’s Oct. 22 game against Rhea County High School in Evensville, players and fans gathered on the field to pray. Video posted on YouTube shows the prayer taking place. A loudspeaker announcement asked the “communities of Rhea County and Soddy-Daisy to come together on the east end of the football field at this time to pray for the safety of the players, coaches and officials of this game.”
That led to FFRF’s letter of complaint Oct. 26 to the Rhea County School District in Dayton. (Dayton is where the “Scopes monkey trial” took place in 1925. FFRF and two of its Tennessee members successfully sued Rhea County Schools in 2001 for regularly allowing a Bryan College “Bible Education Ministry” into K-5 classrooms during school hours. The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the decision in FFRF’s favor in 2004.)
Markert’s letter to Superintendent Jerry Levengood cited federal court cases that struck down public school prayer, including a case that banned student-initiated prayer. Market said the law is clear:
“Public high school events must also be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students. The prayer before the game was announced via the loudspeaker, all in attendance were asked to join in prayer, and the school officials seemingly organized and scheduled a pregame prayer opportunity.”
In a Times Free Press story, Rhea County School Board member Harold “Bimbo” McCawley (a Bryan College graduate) supported the prayer. “This is a student-led activity,” claimed McCawley, one of nine members on the all-male board, according the district’s website.
To Markert, even if the prayer was student-led, “It seems obvious that the school coordinated it.”
WRCB News reported that Levengood said the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an organized high school club, was the prayer provider.
The stands were almost empty as people gathered at the 50-yard line to pray. “We live in the buckle of the bible belt,” McCawley said. “People in the community adhere to the beliefs.”
On Oct. 27, Soddy-Daisy students rallied for school prayer in a public park. “Prayer has got to be a lifestyle,” said Don Oscai, an assistant coach and football team chaplain. “When it becomes a lifestyle, there’s nothing that any superintendent or anybody else can do to prevent that.”
The revelation that the school has a team chaplain led to another FFRF letter of complaint to Scales on Oct. 28. The next day, Soddy-Daisy played Cleveland High School. Without a loudspeaker announcement, reported the Times Free Press, a Soddy-Daisy police officer escorted students and adults onto the grass behind the goal posts. Soddy-Daisy senior Shelton Brown, who led the prayer, said school officials told him it couldn’t be held on the football field.
City Commissioner Jim Adams joined the prayer. “I’m ready to defy Washington and the Supreme Court,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with it at all.”
The Foundation received a formal response Nov. 2 from Superintendent Scales. He wrote that prayers over the PA system at athletic events and graduation programs will no longer be allowed and that a School Board work session was held Oct. 28 with legal counsel on the prayer issue.
After receiving another local request for help, FFRF sent a letter of complaint Nov. 9 to neighboring Loudon County School District contesting prayers over the loudspeaker at football games. “It is also our understanding that a local pastor is invited each week to say the prayer following the national anthem,” Markert wrote.
The Foundation has received numerous letters from its Tennessee members and several from Soddy-Daisy High School alumni who support taking on illegal prayer.
“I am happy someone is finally taking a stand for kids who go to school there but are too afraid to say anything,” one person wrote. “My family is Jewish, and I am an atheist. Christianity was so pervasive at SDHS that I was scared to express myself.”
See: ffrf.org/news/media/archives and ffrf.org/news/video for extensive media coverage.