Cheatham Legislator Backs Teachers at Student Prayer Groups

A controversy over “Prayer at the Flagpole” in Cheatham County has surfaced two years later in the General Assembly. A state representative is trying to overturn a school board decision that restricts teacher participation.

Representative Phillip Johnson, a Pegram Republican, sees a problem with a Cheatham County policy that bars teachers from taking part in student religious gatherings.

The school board came to an out-of-court agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010, and Johnson says the resulting policy is wrong.

“They interpreted it that those coaches and sponsors or teachers couldn’t participate in what we call ‘prayer at the pole,’ where they meet, these students meet, prior to the school, and they were instructed not to acknowledge it, not to participate in it, and not to even bow their head.”

Johnson’s bill would declare the restrictions around teacher participation an infringement of the First Amendment.

But Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU of Tennessee, says the mutual agreement simply protects students from unwanted religious pressure.

“The religious activities that were taking place were taking place during the school day, or prior to the school day, and after the school day, but identified as school-sponsored activities.”

To Weinberg, just because an event is held outside the school or school day doesn’t mean it meets the separation of church and state doctrine.

Rep. Johnson’s bill comes up in a House Education Subcommittee Wednesday.

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The bill is HB 3266 Phillip Johnson / SB 3060 Summerville.

Johnson says his bill would have no effect on students, who can still go about their activities.

“The problem is when you run into employees and staff members that are regulated by school policy from the school board, prohibiting them from participating. In my particular situation you have coaches that are sponsors of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.”

The ACLU tracks the issue in Cheatham County back at least to 2001. Weinberg says the organization worked with parents to resolve the issue before filing a lawsuit. She says the activities were clearly linked to the school grounds.

“The problem in Cheatham County was that school personnel were involved in supporting, promoting, endorsing and participating in religious activities in the public school setting.”

Weinberg says her organization is not opposed to religion in general, or any particular religion. But the school system is financed by the government, she says.

“ACLU has long been committed to ensuring that all individuals can practice their faith. But when you have the school systems engaged in determining what faith that might be, or promoting their own religious faith, then you interfere with the family’s ability to choose what is best for their children.”

For Weinberg, the bill would undo the work of reaching an agreement with a local school board.

“It is really unfortunate that legislators want to tie the hands of the local education agencies from appropriately deciding when it is time to sign an agreement and uphold the religious freedom rights of all members of their community.”

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