By Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com
LENOIR CITY — Loudon County citizens are rallying to protect themselves from what they see as an assault on their civil rights by secular organizations that want to force religion out of the community.
In Lenoir City, community leaders have been engaged in a war of words with secular organizations that have demanded changes related to prayer during school-sponsored activities and the use of the word "religion" on police officers' uniforms.
Now, some residents say, is the time to fight back.
"We need to be the vocal majority instead of letting the vocal minority have their way," said Eddie Click, pastor of the Highland Park Baptist Church in Lenoir City.
Click and other pastors have urged their church members to be more vocal in defending their rights. They have requested that church members interested in having their voices heard and their numbers counted participate in a prayer rally Thursday at the Loudon County Courthouse.
Pastor David Cooper of the New Life Ministries Church in Maryville is one of the organizers of the prayer rally. He said many of his church members live in Loudon County and have children in the school system.
He said that he and other church leaders have been using Facebook and other social media to get the word out.
"It's important that they show their strength in their numbers," he said.
Cooper said he feels churches have sat back with "cold feet" when it comes to challenging secular organizations.
"The church didn't start this, but now it's a good opportunity for us to be heard," he said.
Most people who have weighed in on the matter have sided with the pastors, though some Loudon Countians privately have said their elected officials ought to be tackling weightier issues. Few critics, however, have publicly spoken out.
Just a few hundred yards from Lenoir City High School, Lenoir City resident June Quillen posted a sign reading "Pray for our school" on her front lawn.
She painted the sign herself after the Lenoir City school board temporarily stopped offering prayer before meetings in response to letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Apagnani Humanist Association.
Quillen, the mother-in-law of Lenoir City school board chairwoman Rosemary Quillen, said she remembers when atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair was campaigning to remove prayer from the schools in the 1950s. She remembers signing a petition at the time to keep prayer in the schools.
The sign is her way of expressing her rights and beliefs under the First Amendment, she said.
"I'm doing it for the children of the school," she said.
At a meeting this week, Lenoir City Councilman Eddie Simpson voted to support a letter from the city attorney to the foundation defending the city's use of the word "religion" on police officers' uniforms. The word "religion" has been used on the patch since the 1970s.
Simpson said he feels it's time to stand up for what is right before it's too late.
"I wish we had stood up against these organizations a long time ago. We've surrendered too many of our rights," Simpson said.
The latest letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation dated March 26 expressed the group's reasons for wanting to remove the word "religion" from the police patches.
The letter went further to make moral comparisons between states with strong religious traditions and those without.
"Within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon," the letter states. "Furthermore, although there are some notable exceptions, rates of most violent crimes tend to be lower in the less religious states and higher in the most religious states."
Lenoir City attorney James Scott said he was "kind of in shock" after reading the latest letter, which also claimed that religious states have more poverty, more obesity, more sexually transmitted diseases and higher infant mortality than less religious states.
"I don't know how they support these statements," Scott said.
Scott said he is confident the city is on strong legal ground. The freedom of the city to express its pride through the use of the word "religion" on the patch is protected under the First Amendment, he said.
Andrew Seidel, a constitutional consultant with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said he has read the letter sent by Lenoir City. He disagrees with Scott's interpretation.
"Saying religion is important to the town or the police department is an endorsement of religion. A government cannot endorse religion over non-religion," he said.
If the issue ends up in court, it could be very expensive, Seidel said. Judgments in cases like these often range from $250,000 to $1 million, plus legal expenses, he said.
The Lenoir City school board is still waiting on a legal opinion from attorney Chuck Cagle before making any long-term decisions about prayer at board meetings and school events.