Lenoir City school system curtailing prayers at public meetings
By Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com
The Lenoir City School Board has ceased opening its meetings with a prayer in a response to secular organizations who allege that prayer at board meetings and other school functions violates the Constitution.
The school also has decided it no longer will allow prayer before football games, Superintendent Wayne Miller said.
No decision has been made regarding other complaints raised in letters from the organizations, which include Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
Long-term decisions on the matter will be made with advice from the school district's legal counsel, Miller said.
"We sent the letters to our attorney. I'm waiting to hear his response," Miller said.
Chuck Cagle is the attorney for Lenoir City Schools. He did not return calls.
If Lenoir City officially discontinues prayer at school board meetings it could have repercussions for the Loudon County School Board, which also has a history of opening school board meetings with prayers.
Loudon County school board chairman Scott Newman said the district is closely following what Lenoir City is doing.
Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, a civil liberties organization based in Washington D.C., requested Lenoir City Schools take several steps to ensure what he considered compliance with the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Americans United, among other things, called on the system to suspend delivery of prayers at school board meetings, prohibit teachers from promoting religion during their classes and eliminate prayers from graduation ceremonies and other school events.
A letter to the district from William Burgess of the American Humanist Association alleged similar violations and threatened legal action.
"Your illegal pattern and practice of violating the Constitution, the most fundamental law of the land in our American democracy, must be abandoned, either voluntarily or, if necessary, under court order. It makes a mockery of the law and our most cherished rights and freedoms..." his letter states.
Krystal Myers, the Lenoir City High School senior who first complained of constitutional violations in her school several weeks ago, says she won't give up until the school administration makes more changes.
"I don't want to leave the school the way it was," she said.
The News Sentinel published a story in February about Myers and her essay, entitled No Rights: The Life of an Atheist. School administrators declined to publish the essay in the high school newspaper.
In her editorial Myers claimed the Christian majority in the school express their faith in ways that violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
She said teachers wear religious symbols. She argued prayer occurs before football games and during school board meetings in violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from creating a law establishing a religion.
Myers said since her editorial was published she has received support and positive feedback from around the country, including offers of legal help should she wish to sue.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation awarded Myers a $1,000 student activist award. Other students who have received the award include Jessica Alquist, a Rhode Island student who recently prevailed in a Supreme Court ruling regarding a religious banner in her high school.
Myers said other students obviously knew about her essay and stance but she has not been harassed.
Myers said she is most concerned about the possibility of prayer at her upcoming graduation. She said she doesn't want to file a lawsuit to force the school to ban prayer at the ceremony.
"My parents and I are trying to avoid legal action," she said.
Miller has consistently said no students' constitutional rights have been violated. He said the school does not officially offer prayers at graduation.
"As far as I can remember it's never happened," he said.
Miller acknowledged that when some students are allowed to speak during graduation ceremonies they might have prayed but it was not an official part of the program.