NASHVILLE — If it's autumn in the South that must mean high school football, faith, and the American Civil Liberties Union on its toes to make sure the two don't get too cozy.
Citing reports of prayers before games, the Tennessee chapter of the civil rights group has sent a letter to superintendents across the state reminding them that the law frowns on the practice.
The letter states that it is a violation of the First Amendment for faculty, coaches, administrators or clergy to lead prayers at public school events.
It goes on to say that students have the right to worship and pray according to the dictates of their own consciences. And it invites school officials to contact the organization with questions.
What constitutes student-directed prayer or worship versus school-directed prayer or worship can be a source of disagreement.
Earlier this year a Texas judge ruled in favor of a group of high school cheerleaders who carried banners with Bible verses on them. But rather than clarify the issue, the ruling has been a source of further disagreement, with attorneys for the two sides arguing over its meaning.
The Kountze school district has filed an appeal, asking for clarification on whether the cheerleaders have a free speech right to include religious messages on their banners.
The ACLU-TN letter mentions a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another Texas case. In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the court ruled against letting the student body vote on whether to have prayers before football games. The court found that practice unconstitutional because it allowed the majority to determine the religious rights of the minority.
ACLU-TN Director Hedy Weinberg said the letter went out to 135 Tennessee school districts. In it, she asks the superintendents to share the letter with principals.
The letter concludes, "We want to preserve the sanctity of everyone's religious freedom, including their ability to choose whether and when to pray."