Loudon County residents, supporters make statement at prayer rallies

By Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com

The National Day of Prayer took on special significance for Loudon County residents and supporters who showed up at several organized prayer gatherings Thursday to make a statement about their right to pray in public.

"We're here not just to pray but to stand up and show that we are not ashamed to pray," said Pastor David Cooper of the New Life Ministries Christian Center in Blount County.

Cooper has been among the most vocal area pastors speaking out for prayer in the schools since secular organizations began targeting the Lenoir City school system with complaints about prayer during school functions.

James Raucci, who spoke before a small gathering Thursday at Lenoir City Park, said the rally was in direct response to the challenges faced by the community in regards to prayer in public schools.

"The organization in Wisconsin wants to take away our rights," Raucci said, referring to Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has sent letters to the Lenoir City threatening lawsuits unless the schools comply with demands to remove prayer from its events and board meetings.

Raucci also made a request that people not blame Krystal Myers, the Lenoir City High School student whose essay on atheism some viewed as a catalyst for the recent controversy.

"Don't blame her. It's not her fault. She's entitled to her opinion," he said.

Groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation are targeting the community and are much more dangerous than young students who are just exercising their right to free speech, he said.

About an hour later, another prayer rally began at the Loudon Courthouse, where more than 100 people gathered. Although the purpose of the gathering was to celebrate the National Day of Prayer, there was no separating the event from the recent controversy about prayer in the schools.

"I'm here to stand up for my lord and savior and to tell the atheists that we've had enough of them," said Evelyn Satterfield of Philadelphia.

Judy Carey of Madisonville, Tenn., said she was at the prayer event for similar reasons.

"I'm proud to be a Christian. I'm here to show the atheists that this time we're not afraid of them," she said.

Longtime Loudon County school board member Freddie Walker, who is seeking re-election in the county's 5th District, attended both of Thursday's rallies. He said he was running for school board again because he was concerned about the direction the school system was headed.

"Many of the problems we've been experiencing are because they've taken prayer out of the schools," Walker said.

Phil Holmes, director of ministries for the Loudon County Baptist Association, an organizer of the event, didn't mention prayer in schools but his message suggested that it was time for government to stand up for the rights of local Christians instead of giving in to what he called "special interest groups."

"We're here to pray for our county and our community. That god will grant our leaders wisdom," he said.