On Monday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent out letters to 132 school district superintendents in Tennessee, advising them to keep prayer out of school events.
"It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead prayers at public high school athletic events," wrote Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president. "Federal courts have struck down prayer in public schools because it constitutes a government endorsement of religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."
The 16,000 member Foundation protects the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and regularly receives complaints about prayer at school athletic events. At least 10 of these complaints since October 2010 originated in Tennessee, leading to concerns that such violations in Tennessee are commonplace, the Foundation reports.
The Foundation stopped illegal prayers broadcast over loudspeakers at athletic events at Soddy Daisy High School (Hamilton County, Tenn.) in October 2010. Upon receipt of FFRF's letter, Superintendent Jim Scales promptly ordered principals to follow the law by ceasing all prayers at athletic events in his district. The FFRF office received threatening and hostile calls, e-mails and letters from residents in Soddy Daisy who overwhelmingly offered the same unconstitutional solution of their own: "If you don't like prayer, don't come to the game!"
"It is no defense that attendance at athletic events is voluntary," Gaylor noted in her letter to superintendents. "Courts have rejected arguments that voluntariness can protect a religious activity at a school function from the requirements of the First Amendment. Public school children cannot be forced to choose between their First Amendment rights and their right to participate in public school events."
Gaylor told the districts: "The Constitution exists to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. . . . There are some matters of conscience, such as religious freedom, that our nation's founders deemed too precious to submit to popular vote."
She urged the superintendents to protect the freedom of conscience of all district students, parents and visitors, by reviewing their current school practices.