No prayer dispute end

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald

Although Lenoir City Schools recently began opening its Board of Education meetings with a moment of silence instead of prayer in response to demands from various secular groups across the nation, that decision would not be the end for some who want prayer reinstituted.

In correspondence he said was modeled after that sent by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other secular organizations, Greenback resident James Raucci on Monday sent a letter to the school system urging that prayer be put back into the schools, including school board meetings, graduation and school events.

"I've had a lot of input from people that are pro-prayer, and I actually have kind of adopted this as true, that a moment of silence is kind of like we've been silent for far too long," Raucci said. "I know a lot of people talk about people praying out loud and stuff like, 'Look at me.' Really, it's not about that, but it's about what our country was founded upon and that's a Judeo-Christian country."

He said he would like to see a moment of silence at board meetings alongside a prayer for those in attendance who believe in Christianity.

"I think there's a sharp distinction between prayer and a moment of silence, and what we're asking for is to reinstitute prayer," Raucci said. "And as far as prayer goes, it's very important because if you do believe in prayer, you believe in something higher, something that's purposeful, something that gives you hope. You get answers to prayers, and it builds your faith, and I believe that society as a whole benefits from that."

Lenoir City Schools attorney Charles Cagle cited the 1999 case of Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education as setting the legal precedent that public school boards that open meetings in prayer are in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

"The (U.S.) 6th Circuit has ruled in that case that prayers at school board meetings are unconstitutional, and we intend to follow the law," Cagle said.

"If this gentleman would like to discuss that further, we would be happy to talk to him about it," Cagle said about Raucci. "But I can and will only advise my clients to follow the law as we understand it."

Raucci's letter exhorted the school board to take seven actions, which include reinstituting prayer at the school meetings, holding prayer at football games and graduation ceremonies, allowing teachers to promote religion at school and proliferating religious material on school grounds by church members.

Raucci admitted that the letter was hypothetical in nature.

"What if the local Loudon County churches and a selection of Lenoir City student families threatened to form a class action lawsuit suing the Lenoir City Schools system for re-instituting prayers?" he wrote in the letter. "What would be your response? The threat of litigation is just that, a threat. NOTE: This paragraph is only an Example."

He said that while the letter presented a "what if" scenario, it had a stern undertone.

"I wanted to present that hypothetical with a little bit of a serious tone to it, and I think that anybody would take it as a serious tone and not threatening," Raucci said.

School Superintendent Wayne Miller was part of an informational meeting Thursday morning with community church leaders. He said he was obligated to follow the letter of the law regarding prayer at board meetings.

"Now, you can get made, at me all you want for following the law, and it won't change the law," Miller said. "It is convenient, and it's easy because I can't fight back, but it will not affect the change. The energies to affect change we clearly talked about at today's meeting."

He said that it was important for the school system to adhere to the law to set a good example for students.

"I'm going to do what I believe to be legal and morally correct for our children no matter who's pushing, and I hope that everybody understands that our responsibilities are, first and foremost, we have to follow the law," Miller said. "We absolutely have to follow the law. We have to teach our children to follow the law. The example that we set for them, if we feel like we need to enact change, we need to teach them how to enact the change appropriately, and, hopefully, that's what we communicated this morning."

Not all Christians in the county are behind Raucci and the hundreds who flocked to the Loudon County Courthouse in late March to support organized prayer in schools.

Cross Baptist Church co-pastors Jeremy Weaver and Charles Henderson cited numerous reasons why they feel the current efforts to reinstitute prayer in schools was misguided.

Henderson said that historically, Baptists have advocated for religious freedom, originating from the denomination's pushback against the establishment churches of Europe, like the Catholics and Anglicans, that were dubiously tied to the state.

"I wouldn't want the Catholics telling me how I needed to pray in school if it was only a Catholic school district," Henderson said. "So, I'm for our freedom of religion but not forcing it on any one group. I want the right to express it, but I don't want the right to have it shoved down my throat either."

He said forceful religiosity could have an adverse effect and turn people off from the church.

"I don't expect the whole county to be Christians; I know they're not," Henderson said. "You know, to tell them that they have to pray to Jesus is not doing them any good for their eternal soul. In fact, that's the problem we have in our communities."

"I want to see people come to know the Lord in a real way, not just a superficial, cultural way, and that's what we're battling in the south," he added.

Weaver was of a like mind and on his blog he articulated seven reasons why he did not attend the recent rally at the courthouse. As part of his argument, he cited the passage in Matthew 6 in the New Testament.

"The purpose of this gathering at the Courthouse was to be seen by men and have our voices heard before men," Weaver wrote. "I cannot participate in that. If you want to organize a protest against the erosion of religious freedoms, I'm for that. But let's not cast the spiritual pearl of prayer before the pigpen of politics."

In his final point, Weaver said the current dispute about prayer was a diversion from the real, spiritual fight. Christians are above all followers of Jesus and Americans second.

"There is an onslaught of atheism, false religion and cultural Christianity that we must fight against," he wrote. "Instead, the enemy has tricked us into wasting our time fighting for our rights as Americans."

Raucci said another prayer rally in Loudon was coming soon but he did not supply a date.

Miller said he didn't think the most recent letter from Raucci would be the end to the dispute.

"I don't expect it to end," Miller said. "I'm fully aware that we are dead square in the crosshairs."