Home / Views & Opinion / FOX News Radio claims "Christian" public school teachers are "under attack" in Tennessee for participating in the See You At the Pole event
FOX News Radio claims "Christian" public school teachers are "under attack" in Tennessee for participating in the See You At the Pole event

FOX News Radio claims "Christian" public school teachers are "under attack" in Tennessee for participating in the See You At the Pole event

The ever mythical-wanting-to-be-real conservative "war on Christians" continues, fired up by FOXNews, as Christian teachers passively fight church and state separation and Supreme Court precedent by praying at a public school in Tennessee, and trying to participate in the "See You at the Pole" event before school on school grounds.

The state of Tennessee has seen a lot of court cases of this ilk of late; from introducing a bill that would make Sharia law a felony (violating freedom of religion for Muslims), to the ACLU filing suit in the state saying Tennessee public schools have become Sunday schools:

A lawsuit styled American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee v. The Sumner County Board of Education was filed yesterday by the ACLU in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. The ACLU says that the public schools in Sumner County have been turned into Sunday schools.

The lawsuit alleges that teachers have been leading students in prayer and Bible studies, preachers have been visiting during lunch time and 7 out of 9 songs in a concert being religious in nature.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of nine students from four different families who allege, among other things, that Bibles have been passed out, students in the Bible Study Club pray over the loudspeaker, and that a church youth pastor speaks about the church, his ministry and Jesus during lunch, whether invited or not.

The school district that is under fire for telling teachers that wanted to participate during the "See You At the Pole" event that they should hide from students while they are praying is in Sumner County, Tennessee. And the school officials were completely right to require teachers to pray privately.  Teachers, while they are school, are government officials working in their official capacity,constitutionally, as shall be seen further on.  FOXNews Radio continues:

Sumner County school officials sent guidelines to staff members in advance of today’s “See You At the Pole” prayer event. Christian teenagers around the nation are gathering around their campus flag poles before class to pray for their schools, the nation and each other.

“When a teacher or administrator participates in events such as See You at the Pole, it is possible for a student to confuse a teacher or administrator’s personal speech with their official speech,” read a portion of the guidelines obtained by The Tennessean.

Teachers have not been banned from praying, but if they do – it must be done out of sight and earshot of students, the newspaper reported.

Sumner County school officials declined multiple requests for interviews.

Teachers have complained that they are not allowed to wear crosses at school, have a Bible on their desk, have scripture verses displayed, among other things.   The pastor at Long Hollow Church is suggesting that not being able to do these things is unconstitutional.   The article continues:

The prayer warning came just days after a group of football coaches at Westmoreland Middle were reprimanded after they joined their players for a student-led post-game prayer in the end zone.

The coaches were summoned to the principal’s office after someone witnessed the coaches bowing their heads – and notified school authorities.

“The idea that a coach or teacher cannot bow their head out of respect for student-led prayer is, quite frankly, ridiculous,” Landrith wrote.

However, an attorney for the school district told Fox News Radio there is not a ban on teachers or coaches bowing their heads.

“They were not told to not bow their heads,” David French, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice. “They were reminded that student-led events must remain student-led. Teachers cannot give the appearance of endorsing the student’s message.”

The school’s new policy prohibits staff members from engaging in “any conduct that creates an appearance of endorsement of the organization’s or club’s messages or ideas.”

The policy was written in response to a lawsuit filed last May by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging the school district has endorsed Christianity and violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The myth that religion cannot be practiced in school at all has been a tool in the culture wars in order to shore up Conservative Christian and Dominionist power in Washington.  The reason for restrictions on prayer for public officials (teachers, principals, etc).,  is not only based on the Establishment Clause, but on Supreme Court precedent.  Officials cannot violate the religious freedom of others by seeming to endorse one faith over everything else. The case Engel vs. Vitale [1962] was a landmark Supreme Court Case that determined it is unconstitutional for state officials to endorse organized prayer in the public schools.  The site "The Constitutional Principle" explains other precedents:

The case Abington Township School District v. Schempp was a combination of the Schempp and Murray v. Curlett cases. 374 U.S. 203 (1963). In Schempp, a Pennsylvania law allowed for the reading of ten Bible verses every day at the beginning of class. In Murray v. Curlett, Maryland had passed a law requiring the reading of a passage out of the Bible or the recitation of the Lord's Prayer during the school's opening exercises. As a result of the Schempp decision, the Court created the "secular purpose" and "primary effect" tests for interpreting the Establishment Clause. Instead of relying solely on some element of coercion or compulsion inherent in a school prayer plan, the Court began its attempt at devising a test which could be to determine constitutionality.

The test may be stated as follows: what are the purpose and the primary effect of the enactment? If either is the advancement or inhibition of religion then the enactment exceeds the scope of legislative power as circumscribed by the Constitution. That is to say that to withstand the strictures of the Establishment Clause there must be a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion.

Schempp did not stand for the proposition that school teachers cannot teach about religion in the public schools. In fact, quite the opposite, the Court recognized that teaching religion in the context of history and other secular subjects was not only constitutional but desirable. [emphasis ours]

In effect, these cases are the law governing school prayer. None said that a student was absolutely prohibited from partaking in his or her daily prayer rituals in school. None has said that a prayer in the morning, at lunch time, at recess, before a test or with other students after school is unconstitutional. Students may distribute religious literature to students and talk to students about their religious beliefs. Students may discuss religion in class and write reports concerning religion for class assignments. They may wear religious clothing and symbols. [emphasis ours]

Further laying to rest the myth that prayer and other types of religious expression are banned in schools is the document called "The Joint Statement of Current Lawis a collaborative document undersigned by over 30 religious and civil rights groups that outlines the religious rights of students in the public schools." (Joint Statement of Current Law)

On the contrary, religious expression generally enjoys the same protection as other forms of speech. This document forms the basis of President Clinton's guidelines for religious expression in the public schools. A copy of these guidelines were sent to all public school districts in the United States in September of 1995.


Religion In The Public Schools:   A Joint Statement Of Current Law


The Constitution permits much private religious activity in and about the public schools.  Unfortunately, this aspect of constitutional law is not as well known as it should be.  Some say that the Supreme Court has declared the public schools "religion-free zones" or that the law is so murky that school officials cannot know what is legally permissible.  The former claim is simply wrong.  And as to the latter, while there are some difficult issues, much has been settled.  It is also unfortunately true that public school officials, due to their busy schedules, may not be as fully aware of this body of law as they could be.  As a result, in some school districts some of these rights are not being observed.       The organizations whose names appear below span the ideological, religious and political spectrum. They nevertheless share a commitment both to the freedom of religious practice and to the separation of church and state such freedom requires.  In that spirit, we offer this statement of consensus on current law as an aid to parents, educators and students.       Many of the organizations listed below are actively involved in litigation about religion in the schools.  On some of the issues discussed in this summary, some of the organizations have urged the courts to reach positions different than they did.  Though there are signatories on both sides which have and will press for different constitutional treatments of some of the topics discussed below,  they all agree that the following  is an accurate statement of what the law currently is.

Student Prayers  1.   Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are  not disruptive.  Because the Establishment Clause does not apply to purely private speech, students enjoy the right to read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray before tests, and discuss religion with other willing student      listeners.  In the classroom students have the right to pray quietly except when required to be actively engaged in school      activities (e.g., students may not decide to pray just as a teacher calls on them).  In informal settings, such as the cafeteria or in  the halls, students may pray either audibly or silently, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these  locations. However, the right to engage in voluntary prayer does  not include, for example, the right to have a captive audience      listen or to compel other students to participate.

Graduation Prayer and Baccalaureates  2.   School officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation, nor may they organize a religious baccalaureate ceremony.  If the school generally rents out its facilities to private groups, it must rent them out on the same terms, and on a first-come first-served basis, to organizers of privately sponsored religious baccalaureate services, provided that the school does not extend preferential treatment to the baccalaureate ceremony and the school disclaims official endorsement of the program.  3.   The courts have reached conflicting conclusions under the federal Constitution on student-initiated prayer at graduation.      Until the issue is authoritatively resolved, schools should ask their lawyers what rules apply in their area.

Official Participation or Encouragement  of Religious Activity  4.   Teachers and school administrators, when acting in those capacities, are  representatives of the state, and, in those capacities, are themselves prohibited  from encouraging or soliciting student religious or anti-religious activity.   Similarly, when acting in their official capacities, teachers may not engage in religious activities with their students.  However, teachers may engage in private religious activity in faculty lounges.      

Teaching About Religion  5.   Students may be taught about religion, but public schools may      not teach religion.  As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly      said, "[i]t might well be said that one's education is not complete      without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion      and its relationship to the advancement of civilization."  It would      be difficult to teach art, music, literature and most social studies  without considering religious influences.       The history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other      scripture)-as-literature (either as a separate course or within      some other existing course), are all permissible public school      subjects.  It is both permissible and desirable to teach objectively      about the role of religion in the history of the United States and      other countries.  One can teach that the Pilgrims came to this      country with  a particular religious vision, that Catholics and      others have been subject to persecution or that many of those      participating in the abolitionist, women's suffrage and civil rights movements had religious motivations.  6.   These same rules apply to the recurring controversy surrounding theories of evolution.  Schools may teach about explanations of      life on earth, including religious ones (such as "creationism"), in comparative religion or social studies classes.

In science class, however, they may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology). Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory in order to avoid giving offense to religion nor may they circumvent these rules by labeling as science an article of religious faith.  Public schools must not teach as scientific fact or theory any religious doctrine,  including "creationism," although any genuinely scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught.  Just as they may neither advance nor inhibit any religious      doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student's      religious explanation for life on earth.

Student Assignments and Religion  7.   Students may express their religious beliefs in the form of  reports, homework and artwork, and such expressions are constitutionally protected.  Teachers may not reject or correct such submissions simply because they include a religious symbol or address religious themes. Likewise, teachers may not  require students to modify, include or excise religious views in      their assignments, if germane.  These assignments should be      judged by ordinary academic standards of substance, relevance,      appearance and grammar.  8.   Somewhat more problematic from a legal point of view are other      public expressions of religious views in the classroom.   Unfortunately for school officials, there are traps on either side of this issue, and it is possible that litigation will result no matter  what course is taken.  It is easier to describe the settled cases  than to state clear rules of law. Schools must carefully steer between the claims of student speakers who assert a right to express themselves on religious subjects and the asserted rights      of student listeners to be free of unwelcome religious persuasion      in a public school classroom.       a.   Religious or anti-religious remarks made in the ordinary course of classroom discussion or student presentations  are permissible and constitute a protected right.  If in a sex education class a student remarks that abortion  should be illegal because God has prohibited it, a teacher  should not silence the remark, ridicule it, rule it out of bounds or endorse it, any more than a teacher may  silence a student's religiously-based comment in favor of           choice.       b.   If a class assignment calls for an oral presentation on a  subject of the student's choosing, and, for example, the      student responds by conducting a religious service, the  school has the right — as well as the duty — to prevent   itself from being used as a church.  Other students are not voluntarily in attendance and cannot be forced to become           an unwilling congregation.       c.   Teachers may rule out-of-order religious remarks that are  irrelevant to the subject at hand.  In a discussion of           Hamlet's sanity, for example, a student may not interject views on creationism.   Distribution of Religious

Literature  9.   Students have the right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates, subject to those reasonable time, place, and      manner or other constitutionally- acceptable restrictions imposed      on the distribution of all non-school literature.  Thus, a school      may confine distribution of all literature to a particular table at      particular times.  It may not single out religious literature for      burdensome regulation.  10.  Outsiders may not be given access to the classroom to distribute      religious or anti-religious literature.  No court has yet considered      whether, if all other community groups are permitted to distribute      literature in common areas of public schools, religious groups      must be allowed to do so on equal terms subject to reasonable      time, place and manner restrictions.

"See You at the Pole"  11.    Student participation in before- or after-school events, such as  "see you at the pole,"  is permissible.  School officials, acting inan official capacity, may neither discourage nor encourage  participation in such an event.              

Religious Persuasion Versus Religious Harassment  12.    Students have the right to speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics.  But school officials should intercede to stop student religious speech if it turns into religious harassment aimed at a student or a small group of students.  While it is constitutionally permissible for a student to approach another and        issue an invitation to attend church, repeated invitations in the        face of a request to stop constitute harassment.  Where this line        is to be drawn in particular cases will depend on the age of the        students and other circumstances.                               Equal Access Act  13.  Student religious clubs in secondary schools must be permitted      to meet and to have equal access to campus media to announce      their meetings, if a school receives federal funds and permits any      student non-curricular club to meet during non-instructional time.      This is the command of the Equal Access Act.  A non-curricular      club is any club not related directly to a subject taught or      soon-to-be taught in the school.  Although schools have the right      to ban all non-curriculum clubs, they may not dodge the law's      requirement by the expedient of declaring all clubs      curriculum-related.  On the other hand, teachers may not actively      participate in club activities and "non-school persons" may not      control or regularly attend club meeting.       The Act's constitutionality has been upheld  by the Supreme      Court, rejecting claims that the Act violates the Establishment      Clause.  The Act's requirements are described in more detail in      The Equal Access Act and the Public Schools: Questions and      Answers on the Equal Access Act*, a pamphlet published by a      broad spectrum of religious and civil liberties groups.                            Religious Holidays  14.  Generally, public schools may teach about religious holidays,      and may celebrate the secular aspects of the holiday and      objectively teach about their religious aspects.  They may not      observe the holidays as religious events.  Schools should      generally excuse students who do not wish to participate in      holiday events.  Those interested in further details should see      Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and      Answers*, a pamphlet published by a broad spectrum of religious      and civil liberties groups.               Excusal From Religiously-Objectionable Lessons  15.  Schools enjoy substantial discretion to excuse individual students      from lessons which are objectionable to that student or to his or      her parent on the basis of  religion.  Schools can exercise that      authority in ways which would defuse many conflicts over      curriculum content.  If it is proved that particular lessons      substantially burden a student's free exercise of religion and if      the school cannot prove a compelling interest in requiring      attendance the school would be legally required to excuse the      student.                             Teaching Values  16.  Schools may teach civic virtues, including honesty, good      citizenship, sportsmanship, courage,  respect for the rights and      freedoms of others, respect for persons and their property,      civility,  the dual virtues of moral conviction and tolerance and      hard work.  Subject to whatever rights of excusal exist (see #15      above) under the federal Constitution and state law, schools may      teach sexual abstinence and contraception; whether and how      schools teach these sensitive subjects is a matter of educational      policy.  However, these may not be taught as religious tenets.      The mere fact that most, if not all, religions also teach these      values does not make it unlawful to teach them.    Student Garb  17.  Religious messages on T-shirts and the like may not be singled      out for  suppression.  Students may wear religious attire, such as      yarmulkes and head scarves, and they may not be forced to      wear gym clothes that they regard, on religious grounds, as      immodest.      Released Time  18.  Schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises      religious  instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or      discourage participation or penalize those who do not attend.  Schools may not allow  religious instruction by outsiders on      premises during the school day.

This is the sort of thing that FOXNews misses in its coverage, and conservative Christians and Dominionists miss in their zeal for power.   Prayer is NOT banned in schools. Students are free to practice religious expression in public school.  Public officials acting in their official capacity are not.  Period.    Even Jesus says prayer should be private.

About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
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