Tennessee school caught in illegal shift

The Freedom From Religion Foundation started objecting in 2012 to illegal prayer at South Pittsburg [Tenn.] High School at football games, where the prayer blared over the public address system, according to a local complainant who contacted FFRF.

Rebecca Markert, senior staff attorney for the national state/church watchdog, wrote April 12, 2012, to Mark Griffith, director of Marion County Schools in Jasper, about the unconstitutional practice and concern about it taking place at other athletic events.

Getting no response, Markert sent follow-up letters on May 31 and July 16. before Marshall Raines Jr., an attorney representing the school district, eventually replied. Raines asked FFRF to provide the name of the complainant “to determine whether your organization has standing to raise this issue and to properly investigate the assertions contained in your letter.”

FFRF asserted by return letter that there was no need to identify the complainant. “Marion County Schools can confirm the practice of prayer before football games without knowing who told us,” Markert wrote. “FFRF would not be pursuing this issue at all if it had not been brought to our attention by someone who attended a game and was offended by its religious content.

“We hope you will understand why the complainant contacted us rather than the administration on this matter,” added Markert. “The family would prefer that their identities be held in confidence so that there is no negative interaction between the complainant and administrators at the school.”

To that, Raines responded that state and federal laws bar the school district from retaliating. “Therefore the alleged fear of negative interaction is without merit and provides no basis to withhold information necessary to determine whether there is standing to bring a complaint.”

Three days after receiving that response from the school, FFRF was alerted to a story by WTVC NewsChannel 9 that Director of Schools Griffith had “made the decision to allow 10 minutes before each game for student-led prayer,” replacing the loudspeaker prayer with an onfield prayer.

Griffith is quoted in the story as saying, “We’re going to call it ‘Meet me at the 50.’ That way both sides, the home and the opposing side, can come together and conduct prayer.” FFRF received reports that the 50-yard line prayer occurred at the most recent home game.

Markert wrote the district Sept. 4 that such a “remedy” doesn’t alleviate the constitutional violation. “Here, Marion County Schools has devised a scheme to allow ‘student-led’ prayers before football games on school property by setting aside 10 minutes prior to each home game for ‘student-led’ prayer to occur on the football field.”

That violates the Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling in Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, Markert noted. “The Court 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.”

“ ‘Meet Me at the 50’ continues an unconstitutional practice that must be discontinued immediately,” Markert said. “We further ask that you inform us promptly, in writing, of the steps the district is taking to remedy this serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said it’s naïve to believe that because a law prohibits retaliation, it won’t occur. “There’s an old saying that says ‘Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.’

“Time and time again in cases like this, we’ve seen complainants harassed and threatened, sometimes physically, because they stood up for the law, and courts usually allow anonymity in such cases.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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