Prayer compromise: Lenoir City school board adopts moment of silence

By Hugh G. Willett
LENOIR CITY — The Lenoir City school board will observe a moment of silence before meetings in a compromise with secular organizations that have complained about prayer before the meetings.

Lenoir City Superintendent Wayne Miller outlined the district's policy at a school board meeting Thursday.

Miller said that although he and the school board members are people of faith, they are also sworn to follow the law.

"For that reason, we will provide an opportunity for people of faith to have an individual prayer during a moment of silence before each board meeting," he said. "After many hours of consultation, this seems to be our only legal recourse."

Miller said that the decision to limit prayer during school activities was made by the Supreme Court many years ago, yet for the most part the public remained silent. He urged board members to become politically active on the subject.

"If you have an opinion regarding this matter, the productive place to direct your energies is at the federal level," he said.

Board Chairwoman Rosemary Quillen said she knows how she will use her moment of silence.

"During this time, I will continue to pray for guidance, wisdom and vision for our decisions as a school board," she said.

Rebecca Market, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secular organization that first challenged Lenoir City about prayer in the schools, said the "moment of silence" is acceptable to the organization.

"We're very pleased," she said.

The new policy comes only days after the district received a letter from Americans United, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that supports separation of church and state. The letter outlines what the group considers constitutional violations.

In addition to prayer during board meetings and before high school football games, the letter included new allegations of prayer before basketball games and during a graduation, and it cited posters from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

The letter specifically mentioned Lenoir City High School Principal Steve Millsaps and an alleged prayer during a 2010 graduation ceremony.

Millsaps said he had think carefully before he realized the letter was referring to a speech he made at the 2010 ceremony in which he quoted from the Bob Dylan song "Forever Young."

"Is that a prayer? I know I was thinking about one of our students who died that year and about how we were sending these kids out into the world to become adults," he said. "The words from that song expressed how I felt."

Meanwhile, the Loudon County school board continues to pray out loud before meetings. The agenda for Thursday's meeting listed prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance

Most recent Letter To Lenoir city School Board from atheist orginization

Natalie Shapero* Steven Gey Fellow
(202) 466-3234 x237
1301 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005

April 10, 2012

By Email and First-Class Mail

Lenoir City Board of Education
Bobby Johnson
Rick Chadwick
Glenn McNish, Sr.
Rosemary Quillen
Mitch Ledbetter

Lenoir City Schools
2145 Harrison Avenue
Lenoir City, TN 37771

Wayne Miller, Superintendent
Lenoir City Schools
2145 Harrison Ave.
Lenoir City, TN 37771

Steven Millsaps, Principal
Lenoir City High School
1485 Old Highway 95
Lenoir City, TN 37771

Re: Promotion of Religion at Lenoir City Schools

Dear Superintendent Miller, Principal Millsaps, and Board members:

On March 12, 2012, we wrote to you about several complaints we had received from community members about the ongoing promotion of religion in the Lenoir City  Schools. We requested an answer within ten days. Several weeks have passed, and we have yet to receive a response.

Although we have read press coverage of purported changes to certain school practices, we have received no confirmation of these changes from the school district.
Rather, according to news reports, the school district intends to respond by saying, “Thank you very much. We will handle this locally.” Tenn. School Board Halts Prayers at Meetings, Football Games, Associated Press, Mar. 22, 2012, available at

We assure you that the protection of your local students’ First Amendment right to religious freedom is very much an issue of national concern. In enforcing the
Establishment Clause against local school districts, the U.S. Supreme Court has reiterated “how firmly embedded in our constitutional jurisprudence is the proposition
that the several States have no greater power to restrain the individual freedoms protected by the First Amendment than does the Congress of the United States.”
Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 48–49 (1985). And although we do so only as a last resort, we have not hesitated to represent local residents in federal court against local governments that have refused to comply with the Establishment Clause. See, e.g., Stewart v. Johnson County, No. 2:11-cv-12 (E.D. Tenn. 2011) (following lawsuit by Americans United, county government advised by Alliance Defense Fund agreed to provide plaintiff with extensive injunctive relief, nominal damages, and attorneys’ fees).

Accordingly, we urge you to immediately remedy the following practices.

A. Complaints raised in our March 12 letter.

Our March 12, 2012 letter raised concerns about four practices, none of which the School District has adequately addressed.

Prayers at board meetings/football games.

According to one media account, the school district plans to suspend prayers at board meetings and football games. See Hugh G. Willett, Lenoir City School System Curtailing Prayers at Public Meetings (Mar. 1, 2012, 4:00 a.m.), If true, these are welcome developments, but we have received no confirmation of them from the school district. Please confirm that the school district has in fact decided to suspend prayers at these events, and please advise when these changes will take effect.

Prayers at graduation ceremonies.

With respect to our concerns about student prayers at graduation ceremonies, we have seen no indication that the school district
intends to suspend this practice. Even media reports reflect only that the Superintendent has denied—contrary to the citizen complaints that we described—that
there have been student prayers at graduation ceremonies, and has not committed to stopping the practice. As we explained in our March 12 letter, the First Amendment prohibits even student-led prayers at school-sponsored graduation ceremonies. See, e.g., Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000); Corder v. Lewis Palmer Sch. Dist. No. 38, 566 F.3d 1219 (10th Cir. 2009); Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified Sch. Dist., 320 F.3d 979 (9th Cir. 2003); ACLU of N.J. v. Black Horse Pike Reg’l Bd. of Educ., 84 F.3d 1471 (3d Cir. 1996) (en banc). Please confirm that you will ensure that your high school graduations—including this year’s ceremony—will not feature prayers, student-led or otherwise.

Promotion of religion by physical-education teacher.

We have seen no response—in the media, or otherwise—to the complaints that we raised about the promotion of religion by a school physical-education teacher and coach, Ms. Herron. These practices include reading to students from the Bible and encouraging students to
attend meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. As detailed in our March 12 letter, the Establishment Clause plainly prohibits public-school teachers from
promoting religion to students. See, e.g., Lee v. York Cnty. Sch. Div., 484 F.3d 687 (4th Cir. 2007); Doe v. Porter, 370 F.3d 558 (6th Cir. 2004); Roberts v. Madigan, 921 F.2d 1047 (10th Cir. 1990). There should be no delay in bringing these practices to an
immediate end.

Distribution of religious literature on school grounds by church members.

We have received complaints that, even after our March 12 letter, members of a local church
are distributing Christian literature to students on school grounds during the school day. As we detailed in our previous letter, the Establishment Clause plainly prohibits a public school from allowing a church to proselytize on school grounds during the school day. See, e.g., Doe v. Wilson Cnty. Sch. Sys., 564 F. Supp. 2d 766, 797 (M.D. Tenn. 2008). The school district should likewise halt this practice immediately.

B. Additional Establishment Clause complaints.

Since our previous letter, we have also received complaints about additional constitutional violations at Lenoir City Schools.

Prayer by school officials at school events.

We have received complaints that the principal, Mr. Millsaps, delivered a prayer at the high school’s 2010 graduation ceremony, and that the high school’s athletic director has recited the Lord’s Prayer to students over the loudspeaker during basketball games. As the U.S. Supreme Court has explained repeatedly, the delivery of prayers at school events is unconstitutional— especially when requested or delivered by school officials. See, e.g., Santa Fe, 530 U.S. at 302 (Establishment Clause prohibits “invocations [that] are authorized by government policy and take place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events”); Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 587 (1992) (Establishment Clause violation when “[a] school official, the principal, decided that an invocation and a benediction should be given” at high-school graduation); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) (“by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the [government] has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause”). The prayers by the principal and athletic director fall squarely within that prohibition.

Fellowship of Christian Athletes posters.

We also understand that since the concerns about religion at the school have become public, the posters advertising meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA)—which are posted in the highschool’s hallway—have become even more overtly religious, and now feature prominent images of crosses. FCA members do not have free reign to proselytize on school walls during the school day. See, e.g., Bannon v. Sch. Dist., 387 F.3d 1208, 1217 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (upholding removal of proselytizing FCA mural from high-school hallway). Especially light of at least one teacher’s improper promotion of FCA meetings, the school district must make every effort to avoid endorsement of FCA’s mission and message.

We will continue to investigate complaints about Lenoir City Schools and monitor the school district’s responses closely. Please respond to the concerns raised by
this letter—as well as those identified in our March 12 letter—by the close-of-business on Monday, April 16, 2012. If you have any questions or would like to discuss these issues further, please contact Natalie Shapero at (202) 466-3234 or


Gregory M. Lipper, Senior Litigation Counsel
Natalie Shapero, Steven Gey Fellow*

*Admitted in Pennsylvania only. Supervised by
Gregory M. Lipper, a member of the D.C. bar.