Tenn. school takes action to ax proselytizing

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has convinced a Tennessee school district to implement a corrective plan barring proselytizing assemblies from taking place.

A concerned student of the Oneida High School in Huntsville, Tenn., reported to FFRF that the school had allowed a local pastor to preach and evangelize to students at a mandatory assembly this past fall. Students at the school are required to attend monthly “character assemblies,” which are typically secular in nature. Last November, however, FFRF was informed that a local pastor began an assembly that was supposed to be on the secular topic of “friendship” by asking students to repeat the phrase, “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.” He went on to instruct the students to turn to the person seated next to him or her to inform each other that Jesus loves them.

The pastor then proceeded to tell biblical stories loosely tied to the topic of friendship. For example, he told the students that one of the qualities of a good friend is “someone who has God in their heart and can help you with your walk of faith.” He further gave instructions to students on how they can be “saved,” and noted that, “nobody can change the world if they don’t have God in their heart.”

FFRF wrote to Oneida Special School District (OSSD) on June 7 to warn against the inclusion of religious proselytizing in future high school assemblies. Not only is it inappropriate to take instructional time away from students to expose them to spiritual propaganda — it is well settled in federal and state courts that public schools may not advance or promote religion.

“Religious proselytizing as part of a school assembly is in violation of the Establishment Clause,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line to Director of Schools Jeanny Hatfield. “Students are a vulnerable and captive audience. When a mandatory school assembly includes religious messages, students will reasonably conclude that the school endorses those messages.”

And school sponsorship of a religious message ostracizes the nearly 40 percent of Millennials who are nonreligious, FFRF pointed out.

In a letter received July 6, the legal counsel representing the school district informed FFRF that Hatfield and Oneida High School principal, Kevin Byrd, understand that the district may not endorse religious practices and will comply with state and federal laws going forward.

“In an effort to preserve the integrity of our ‘character’ program and ensure that our students are protected from religious proselytizing the OSSD will require that an outline of the content of all presentations be submitted to the principal or his designee for review and approval prior to the presentation,” states the letter.

FFRF applauds the district for taking immediate action to rectify the violation and protect its students’ rights of conscience.

“Religion is inherently divisive and has no official place in a public school where staff and young students hold varied beliefs — and no belief at all,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s commendable that the district has implemented a plan to ensure its future events remain secular.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 32,000 members and several chapters across the country, including members in Tennessee and a local chapter, FFRF East Tennessee. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Photo Credit: Jeremy What / Shutterstock

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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