CARTHAGE, Tenn. — A school district in Tennessee has agreed not to allow Christianity to be promoted by school officials or third parties, including in regard to the presentation of prayers at events, the reading of Scripture in the classroom or the posting of religious displays in hallways.
Two atheist families, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee, sued the Smith County School System last November, claiming that Smith County middle and high schools were permitting the promotion of Christianity on a regular basis and that it made their children feel like outsiders.
“School-sponsored prayer is common at athletic and other school events; religious iconography and messages adorn the walls of the schools; and teachers proselytize their Christian faith,” the lawsuit stated. “All of these activities send a clear message to minority-faith and non-religious students that they are second-class members of the school community while their Christian peers are favored by school officials.”
The complaint alleged that Principal Kelly Bell asked for prayer requests during Monday morning assemblies, and one of the plaintiff’s teachers did so as well on other days of the week.
It also stated that prayers were presented before football games at Gordonsville High School and coaches pray with students before games at Smith County High School. Prayer was presented as well during the 2019 Smith County High School graduation ceremony.
The complaint additionally stated that Gideons International was permitted to distribute Bibles to fifth graders at Smith County Middle School and Bibles were also seen displayed in hallways and classrooms.
This week, Smith County Director of Schools Barry Smith signed a consent decree agreeing to no longer allow Christianity to be promoted by school officials.
“School officials shall neither offer nor participate in a prayer during or in conjunction with a school event,” it reads in part. “School officials shall not encourage, solicit, or invite any person, either implicitly or explicitly, to deliver or offer a prayer during or in conjunction with a school event.”
“During or in conjunction with a school event, school officials shall not offer a prayer, recite a prayer alongside or with students, bow their heads or otherwise posture in a manner that is likely to be perceived as an endorsement of the prayer, or kneel or join hands with students.”
The consent decree also states that “[s]chool officials shall not cite to, read or assign readings from the Bible, a sacred text or a sermon absent a legitimate non-religious, educational objective,” and may not “authorize students to post religious iconography or religious messages in classrooms, hallways, or other school facilities.”
“School officials shall remove any such existing displays,” it says. “However, this provision is not intended to impede a student’s free exercise of religion.”
One of the plaintiffs, father Kelly Butler, said in a statement on Tuesday, “I’m relieved the school district recognized that its widespread promotion of religion was unconstitutional. My children, and all children, deserve an education that is free from the type of religious coercion that our family has suffered.”
As previously reported, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and vice-president of the Bible Society of Philadelphia, once said, “The only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government is the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by means of the Bible.”
He also wrote in a letter to John Adams in 1807, “By renouncing the Bible, philosophers swing from their moorings upon all moral subjects. Our Saviour in speaking of it calls it ‘Truth,’ in the abstract. It is the only correct map of the human heart that ever has been published. It contains a faithful representation of all its follies, vices & crimes. All systems of religion, morals, and government not founded upon it, must perish, and how consoling the thought! It will not only survive the wreck of those systems, but the world itself. ‘The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.’”
The first textbook used in the American colonies even before the nation’s founding, “The New England Primer,” was largely focused on the Scriptures, and was stated to be popular in public and private schools alike until approximately the early 1900’s. It used mostly the King James Bible as reference, and spoke much about sin, salvation and proper behavior.
“Save me, O God, from evil all this day long, and let me love and serve Thee forever, for the sake of Jesus Christ, Thy Son,” it read.
Noah Webster’s famous “Blue Back Speller” also referenced Christianity, including God-centered statements in reading lessons such as “The preacher is to preach the gospel,” “Blasphemy is contemptuous treatment of God,” and “We do not like to see our own sins.” Webster, a schoolmaster, is known as the “father of American education” and strongly advocated teaching children the Scriptures.