Prayer Greets Bible Lawsuit in Dayton (September 2001)

In the face of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s federal lawsuit challenging religious instruction in Tennessee public schools, hundreds of people showed up for an annual prayer rally at Rhea County High School in Dayton, Tennessee, on Sunday, Aug. 26.

The lawsuit, filed in April, opposes Rhea County’s policy permitting college students from the fundamentalist Bryan College to teach “the Bible” to public school students in every grade, starting in kindergarten.

The practice is in clear violation of the landmark Supreme Court decision McCollum v. Board of Education declaring religious instruction in public schools to be unconstitutional, the Foundation contends. The Foundation, with its local John and Jane Doe plaintiffs and their schoolchildren, is asking the court to halt the long-term illegal practice of subjecting a captive audience of children to Christian indoctrination in school.

The Foundation became involved in the legal challenge at the request of the local plaintiffs, who were shocked to learn that their small children were being proselytized during the school day by students from the bible college.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press coverage of the prayer rally linked the high turnout to community opposition to the lawsuit. After the Foundation formally protested religion in the schools, the Rhea County Commission voted unanimously last fall to approve the bible classes.

Although the event was not sponsored by the schools or government, the newspaper reported that members of the Rhea County Commission and school officials attended, and were led in prayer by Dr. Bill Brown, president of Bryan College.

The crowd sang, prayed and circled the high school football stadium field. This was the third year in a row that the prayer event was held at the public school. The prayer rally was first organized in 1999 by the New Union Baptist Church of Dayton, Tennessee, after the Columbine shootings.

A pre-trial hearing on the Foundation’s lawsuit is expected in October. The defendants had objected to the request that the identity of the plaintiffs in this ultra-conservative community be kept confidential. However, the Court agreed to accept them as “Does.”

Bryan College was established after the (in)famous Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, to honor William Jennings Bryan, who championed creationism in the case.

The Foundation sent an official letter of complaint on Sept. 27, 2000, to Susan Porter, Rhea County Superintendent, who is named as a defendant, enumerating the various prevailing Supreme Court decisions which the practices violate. The Foundation requested that the schools stop teaching and endorsing Christian religious beliefs and practices.

“Plaintiffs Jane Roe and John Doe object to the misallocation of public facilities and public school time, paid for at taxpayers’ expense, for the purpose of teaching public school children religious beliefs and practices to which they personally do not subscribe,” the complaint says. “Plaintiff Roe’s children are of tender years and are, therefore, extremely vulnerable to such religious proselytization.”

The lawsuit invokes more than 50 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent against such practices, striking down religious instruction in public schools.

Freedom From Religion Foundation