A Tennessee school district is under fire after a group of middle school football coaches were reprimanded for bowing their heads during a post-game prayer and teachers were warned to hide from students if they chose to pray during a nationally organized prayer event.
Sumner County school officials sent guidelines to staff members in advance of today’s “See You At the Pole” prayer event. Christian teenagers around the nation are gathering around their campus flag poles before class to pray for their schools, the nation and each other.
“When a teacher or administrator participates in events such as See You at the Pole, it is possible for a student to confuse a teacher or administrator’s personal speech with their official speech,” read a portion of the guidelines obtained by The Tennessean.
Teachers have not been banned from praying, but if they do – it must be done out of sight and earshot of students, the newspaper reported.
Sumner County school officials declined multiple requests for interviews.
“To tell the teachers that they cannot attend ‘See You At The Pole,’ which occurs before school hours, just doesn’t seem to be constitutional,” David Landrith, pastor of Long Hollow Baptist Church, wrote on his blog. “This is the United States of America.”
Landrith said he is a “pro-school” pastor and typically doesn’t get “fired-up” about politics. However, he decided to speak out once he began hearing reports that rights of Christian students and teachers have been under attack.
“Teachers have expressed to me that it is being communicated to them that they cannot do certain things: things like wear or display a cross, have a Bible on their desk in their office, have Scripture verses displayed in their personal work space, listen to Christian music in their office, or participate in a prayer at a Christian organization such as FCA or Bible study,” Landrith said.
He also alleged that one high school has forbidden students from handing out fliers about a Bible Study.
“You can’t ban people from practicing their faith in the marketplace – whether it’s a Muslim, Buddhist, or a Christian. Christianity should not be favored over other religions. However, Christians should have the same rights as everyone else.”
The prayer warning came just days after a group of football coaches at Westmoreland Middle were reprimanded after they joined their players for a student-led post-game prayer in the end zone.
The coaches were summoned to the principal’s office after someone witnessed the coaches bowing their heads – and notified school authorities.
“The idea that a coach or teacher cannot bow their head out of respect for student-led prayer is, quite frankly, ridiculous,” Landrith wrote.
However, an attorney for the school district told Fox News Radio there is not a ban on teachers or coaches bowing their heads.
“They were not told to not bow their heads,” David French, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice. “They were reminded that student-led events must remain student-led. Teachers cannot give the appearance of endorsing the student’s message.”
The school’s new policy prohibits staff members from engaging in “any conduct that creates an appearance of endorsement of the organization’s or club’s messages or ideas.”
The policy was written in response to a lawsuit filed last May by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging the school district has endorsed Christianity and violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The American Center for Law and Justice is representing the school district in the lawsuit. The ACLU declined to comment for this story.
“This whole tempest is the poisonous fruit of the ACLU tree,” French said, suggesting the school system is being especially cautious in light of the lawsuit. “It’s easy to imagine in a scenario where they are dealing with this incredibly aggressive attack from the ACLU that a public prayer would cause people to question it.”
The four coaches who bowed their heads were required to sign a letter stating that they understood the school’s policy. French said it was not a formal reprimand.
“There was no admonition against bowing,” he said. “They were asked to sign their understanding of school board policy regarding student participation.”
However, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Fox News Radio, the coaches were threatened with losing their positions of they violated the policy.
“If I fail to follow board policy, then I realize that I will not be allowed to serve as a coach,” the letter read.
So, are teachers and coaches allowed to simply bow their heads and join students in prayer?
“It’s a gray area,” French said. “It’s very contextual. With those guidelines in place, the staff members have to be cognizant of their surroundings and appearances and perceptions.”
The key, French said, is the student’s free speech rights. “This is a policy that protects religious expression,” he said. “It doesn’t inhibit it.”
But that’s not how many Christians in the community feel about the rules.
“The House and Senate open with prayer,” he said. “The White House sponsors a National Day of Prayer,” Pastor Landrith said. “Good grief, even our presidents are sworn into office with their hands on a very visible Bible. But somehow in Sumner County our teachers cannot be a part of a student-led prayer effort?”