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Tennessee school forced to stop public prayer before games

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A Tennessee high school will no longer have Christian prayers read over stadium loudspeakers before games after the Hamilton (Tenn.) County Schools superintendent outlawed the practice on Wednesday. Superintendent Jim Scales made the decision in response to a letter he received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which cited the unconstitutionality of the practice.

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According to the Associated Press and Chattanooga Times Free Press, the issue was first raised by students at Soddy-Daisy (Tenn.) High School, who reached out to the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation citing a feeling of uncomfortability when prayers were read aloud over stadium loudspeakers before kickoff of football games. The reading of pregame prayers is reportedly a Soddy-Daisy tradition, and the Times Free Press also cited other examples of Christian verse being used in Hamilton (Tenn.) County schools, including student-led group prayers and Bible verse posters in public school classrooms.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation said all of those practices are unconstitutional.

"It's clearly illegal what they're doing," Rebecca Markert, the Freedom from Religion Foundation's staff attorney, told the Times Free Press. "We'll give [school officials] a couple of weeks to do an investigation and formulate a response."

Meanwhile, area residents and officials reacted with disappointment to Scales' decision to ban pregame prayer over the public address speakers.

"Everybody is offended by something," Hamilton County Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman told the Times Free Press. "I'm offended by a lot of those little girls running around with their thong panties showing, but I can't make that go away."

A representative from the Freedom from Religion Foundation countered that the difference between traditional freedom of speech -- which would cover prayer outside the game, or a moment of reflection before a game -- and prayer read aloud was the captive audience at a football game.

Here's how Annie Laurie Gaither, Freedom from Religion's director and co-president, described the dichotomy between legal prayer and Soddy-Daisy's illegal practice to the Times Free Press:

The school system, she said, "has no leg to stand on" and the practice should be stopped immediately.

"Students are a captive audience, they're required to go to school. When there is a violation like a prayer at a school, they're really vulnerable; it's a violation of their civil rights," she said.

"This is the harm of religion in government, that the people who are religious believe they are the true citizens and the other people have no rights," she said.

"It's very dangerous to go down this path of government and religion; someone will always be on the outs."

Gaylor mentioned another area case from 2006 in which students from Bryan College, a Christian school in Dayton, Tenn., were coming to give "hour-long Bible instruction" to students in Rhea County's public school system. The foundation eventually took that case to federal court and won, Gaylor said.

Many First Amendment violations crop up during sporting events, she said.

"It's a lack of understanding where their personal rights stop and other people's civil liberties begin," she said. "It's perfectly ridiculous to have prayer at football games. Is their deity going to help them win the game? Whoever prays the hardest wins the game? I don't think so."

The first game without a pregame prayer at Soddy-Daisy will come next Thursday night, when the Trojans host Cleveland (Tenn.) High School.

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