By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
Bradley County Schools officials are still considering how they will respond to a controversy over a Christian prayer being broadcast at a local school football game. Director of Schools Dr. …
Bradley County Schools officials are still considering how they will respond to a controversy over a Christian prayer being broadcast at a local school football game.
Director of Schools Dr. Linda Cash described the district’s current course of action in a statement to the Cleveland Daily Banner on Friday.
“The Bradley County Board of Education is currently seeking advice from legal counsel, lawmakers, and groups specializing in religious freedom and liberty issues regarding the letter received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation on Jan. 19, 2018,” Cash said.
“It is the responsibility of the director of Schools and the Bradley County School Board to be sure our students’ free speech rights are protected. While the Bradley County School Board is seeking the advice of several groups concerning this complicated issue and exploring all options, no decisions have been made.”
The controversy began after a complaint was made over a student being allowed to say a prayer over the loudspeaker to help start a Bradley Central High School football game.
The anonymous complainant, who self-identifies as a Bradley County Schools employee, reached out to an advocacy organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation with this concern.
Christopher Line, a legal fellow with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter describing the employee's complaint to Scott Bennett, attorney for the county school district.
A video the complainant shared with the Banner showed a student was given the opportunity to lead the crowd in a Christian prayer at the game on Oct. 13, 2017.
After the game’s announcer gave the suggestion to “rise and remove your hats,” he introduced the student leading the prayer. After suggesting people bow their heads, this student thanked God for allowing everyone to arrive at the game safely and prayed for “safety and great sportsmanship” during the game.
While the prayer was said by a student rather than a staff or faculty member, the complainant says a prayer should not have been broadcast over the loudspeaker in the first place.
“This matter is important to me because the Supreme Court ruled 18 years ago that prayers at football games, even if led by students, are not permitted by our Constitution,” the complainant told the Banner.
In the letter to Bennett, Line cited the U.S. Supreme Court case “Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe.” The court ruled in 2000 that a Texas high school could not allow prayers to be broadcast over the loudspeaker at football games. This was based on the court's interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
Line said in his letter the local school district is “endorsing” prayer. He said the school district “must take immediate action to end the practice of scheduling prayer at school-sponsored events and end the use of district equipment to project prayers to the public.”
Line asked the district to tell the Freedom From Religion Foundation in writing what it will do to “remedy this serious violation of the First Amendment.”
Though this request was made of Bradley County Schools in written form, it was a normal letter and not a legal document. The local school district is currently not involved in any litigation related to this matter.
As she explained the district’s current course of action, Cash acknowledged members of the local community have varying opinions on prayer at public school athletic games.
“We strongly believe Bradley County Schools plays an integral role in the development of our young people in our community and encourage the public to continue to voice their opinions on this issue,” said Cash.
To gauge what the community thinks about this issue, the Banner recently held an informal poll via social media. This poll asked the following question: “Do you support prayer being broadcast over public address systems at public school athletic games?”
As of press deadlines Saturday, 880 unique Facebook users had responded to this poll. The majority, 808 respondents, said “Yes.” The remaining 72 respondents said “No.”
Others in the community have expressed support for prayer since the Freedom From Religion Foundation reached out to the school district. A couple hundred people converged on the BCHS football field for a privately-organized prayer rally on Sunday, Jan. 21.
Though many in the community seem to be favoring one side of this issue, it is unclear what role — if any — local public opinion will play in this matter moving forward.
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