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ACLU asks schools to stop praying before football games

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee sent letters this week to several local school superintendents calling on them to stop school-sponsored prayer before football games.

Midway through the state’s high school football season, the civil liberties advocacy group reminded school leaders of several Supreme Court decisions they say clearly ban the practice of publicly-led expressions of religion.

“Our experience is that many public school administrators and educators struggle with how the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom apply to prayer during their school-sponsored events,” said Hedy Weinberg, the ACLU’s executive director. “Our goal is to make sure that school systems statewide understand these First Amendment guarantees and commit to protecting religious freedom for all students, including athletes, and for their families who attend the games.”

In a later interview, Weinberg said the organization sent out letters to 135 county and city school superintendents and directors in the state after reading reports from East Tennessee of coaches publicly endorsing prayer before games, which two Supreme Court decisions said violated the rights of those who didn’t want to take part.

The letter, which asks for school districts “to commit to protecting religious freedom,” does not mention potential legal action against the school systems if prayers continue. Instead, Weinberg called the notifications “a gentle reminder” about the issue.

“This isn’t a race to the courthouse, but I’ll tell you when we’ve not been able to resolve these issues, we have, on behalf of families, pursued litigation,” she said.

While not all area school leaders had received the letters as of Friday, the districts they are in charge of have varied stances on the issue. Weinberg said she had received no specific reports about prayer at games in Middle Tennessee.

Metro Nashville Public Schools’ policy on the issue, last updated in 2011, said the district would not endorse specific religious practices or coerce other students to participate in them.

“Among other things, school administrators and teachers will not organize, encourage, or engage in prayer exercises in the classroom or at school-related events,” the policy reads.

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Sumner County Schools Director Del Phillips said he hadn’t received the ACLU’s letter as of Friday evening. He said the civil liberties group shouldn’t have an issue in the district he leads.

“I’ve been to ballgames every week in Sumner County, and that hasn’t occurred in any of them,” Phillips said.

In the state last year, the Freedom from Religion Foundation also called for pregame prayers to cease at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

The ACLU has gone to court previously with school districts in Cheatham, Sumner and Wilson counties concerning other issues about religion in the classroom.

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Weinberg also said the state ACLU typically sends out a letter related to school prayer at some point during each school year.

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