Fighting back: Loudon residents respond to 'attack on religion'

Hugh G.
LOUDON Hundreds of Loudon County men, women and children gathered on the county's courthouse lawn Thursday to pray in support of religion in their community.

Almost an hour before the event started, children wandered across the grass holding signs that read "He stood for us. We stand for him." An older man with a baseball cap that read "Jesus is my Boss" stood next to the World War II veterans monument.

Toby Brewster, a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Lenoir City, sat with her grandson and watched the crowd gather from a fountain overlooking the courthouse. She said her minister had urged her and other church members to attend.

"We want to let our elected officials know that we are behind prayer in the schools," she said.

Becky O'Dell of Loudon wore a sign that declared: "It's freedom of religion not freedom from religion," a reference to the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation that began challenging Lenoir City and its prayer in schools policy after the News Sentinel profiled a high school senior whose column titled "No Rights: The Life of an Atheist" was not allowed to run in the school newspaper.

Secular groups have since alleged that the Lenoir City school board violated the constitution by allowing, among other things, prayer before its meetings and football games. The city's police department was similarly accused over the word "religion" on patches worn by its officers.

While the school board announced it would cease such prayers, Lenoir City Mayor Aikens said Monday the city has no plans to remove the patches.

A number of county and local government officials were in attendance at Thursday's event, including Loudon County Mayor Estelle Herron, several county commissioners, some Lenoir City Council members and members of the Loudon County school board. Some of the Lenoir City officials said they could not talk because of fears of pending litigation.

State Reps. Jimmy Matlock and Julia Hurley, both Lenoir City Republicans, also attended. Hurley said she was impressed with the turnout.

"All these people showed up to let their local officials know how important religion and prayer is to their community," she said.

The crowd, which grew to well over 500 by the time the program started, cheered event organizer James Raucci as he explained why the event was held.

"What we've seen in the last week is an attack on religion," he said "I'm tired of seeing things like this happen."

Raucci challenged the secular organizations that have been targeting Lenoir City and urged local officials not to back down to threats of lawsuits.

"No organization has enough money to sue everybody who believes in God," he said.

Pastor David Cooper of the New Life Ministries Church was the featured speaker at the event. He urged the more than a dozen other pastors in the audience to join him at the front of the crowd.

"It's time to be bold. We have to learn to agree that we will not be pushed around" Cooper said.

As the program continued, the atmosphere took on the air of a "revival" as the crowd urged Cooper on with spontaneous shouts of "Amen" and "Praise Jesus."

"We can't let them take prayer away from our children," Cooper said as the crowd erupted in cheers.