Why Was a Pastor Invited to This Public School’s 9/11 Memorial Ceremony?

About a month ago, Sale Creek Middle/High School in Tennessee held a memorial service, as many schools did, for the victims of 9/11. Nothing wrong with that at all.

The problem is that a local pastor, Alan Stewart, was invited to speak to the students during the event. His speech, as you would expect, was littered with God:

Pastor Alan Stewart

When tragedy struck, our nation was humbled to its knees. Through the brokenness, tears would flow and people began to pray. Prayer occurred in churches, in classrooms, in the marketplace, on the street corner, and in government offices. But, it was interesting to note, there was not a single protest over praying in all of America! In times past, God had always protected America in this war torn world, and our nation called upon God to do it again. As Dwight Eisenhower signed the law adding the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, he said, “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.” Our leaders were reminded that our first line of defense was not found in alliances, not in weapons of war, but in God almighty Himself.

Naturally, the Freedom From Religion Foundation caught wind of this and wrote a letter to an attorney for the district:

It is particularly disturbing that this pastor was allowed to emcee the assembly given the past problems FFRF and your firm have corresponded with about a religious assembly at Signal Mountain middle/High School.

The prayer, bible readings, and endorsements of the Christian god, were all unconstitutional. FFRF asks that you take immediate action to ensure that future District assemblies do not include prayer. We also ask that Sale Creek Middle/High SChool students and faculty receive an apology and an explanation as to why it was inappropriate for this assembly to include religious messages.

Pastor Stewart got a copy of that letter. He thought about it. He prayed about it. And then he responded personally to FFRF’s Andrew Seidel with the most condescending letter you’ll ever see, explaining to the church/state separation expert how church/state separation is a sham.

He writes that “The Constitution never meant that little children could not pray in school,” a fact that’s obvious to everyone and has nothing to do with this case.

Stewart also quotes a Supreme Court case Lee v. Weisman in which the justices said:

A relentless and all-pervasive attempt to exclude religion from every aspect of public life could itself become inconsistent with the Constitution.

Stewart doesn’t mention — maybe because it defeats his point — that the court was referring to individuals praying. The court went on to say in the same passage as that quotation that…

No holding by this Court suggests that a school can persuade or compel a student to participate in a religious exercise. That is being done here, and it is forbidden by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

When a school assembly includes a Christian pastor, that’s as much a religious exercise as a pastor speaking at a public school graduation ceremony, and the Supreme Court ruled against exactly that.

Oh, and Stewart brings up school shootings, teen pregnancy, drug use, and suicide, none of which address the fact that he had no business being invited to the school assembly in the first place.

But enough about him. As easy it is to mock Stewart — and he’s just asking for it with his irresponsible, misinformed letter — he’s not the one who broke the law.

What about the administrators? What about the principal of the school?

That would be Tobin Davidson and he took matters into his own hands. According to devout Christian and publicist Rebeca Seitz, who unintentionally helped our side by putting all these documents online so we could see how the school violated the law, Davidson doesn’t take the FFRF’s letter seriously either:

The principal — and I am serious that we have to send this principal about forty-thousand “atta-boys” for even thinking of this, much less doing it — assigned the students the task of researching the issue and writing a paper espousing who is right and who is wrong (constitutionally speaking).

1) He’s wrong. There’s no debate about it.

2) Why the hell is a principal assigning kids homework? That’s not his job.

One news source says that “After the [FFRF's] letter, the school system says it has retrained educators about keeping [church and state] separate.” But that doesn’t really explain much, given that the principal is still acting like there are two sides to this story. (***Update***: I’m told by a source that the TV station is incorrect and that the training has not occurred yet.)

This is the same district, by the way, where another school had formal Christian prayers during football games and graduation ceremonies just a few years ago.

They clearly haven’t learned their lesson.

(Thanks to Brian for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • JWH

    I don’t think inviting a pastor to speak is a problem per se. You get problems when the pastor starts proselytizing …

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    ” Our leaders were reminded that our first line of defense was not found in alliances, not in weapons of war, but in God almighty Himself.”

    You know, it was so nice of the almighty to let 9/11 happen to just prove a point. Such a sweet sounding deity I don’t know why so many atheists think he is an asshole if he exists.

  • Jeo

    Don’t invite a speaker that becomes a problem when he speaks.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I find it particularly scary that people can see something horrible perpetrated by humans that was so obviously motivated by religious faith, and then think that the proper response is to appeal to their own religious faith.

  • Timmah

    “Our leaders were reminded that our first line of defense was not found in alliances, not in weapons of war, but in God almighty Himself.”

    And to quote Loki from The Avengers “And what a FANTASTIC job you’re doing with that!”

  • http://cranialhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    Tennessee seems to have more reports of these issues than you’d expect from the percentage of the US population that it represents. No, I can’t cite any sources yet, but Wikipedia numbers tell me that TN represents about 2% of the US population.

  • C Peterson

    That’s what pastors do when they speak. If you want a different message, why invite a pastor in the first place? It makes no sense.

  • TiltedHorizon

    “In times past, God had always protected America in this war torn world, and our nation called upon God TO DO IT AGAIN.”

    This infers that god came and did something. What was that something? The surviving families of those lost are still broken. The death toll from 9/11 related illnesses are still rising. I guess all the dead prayed to the wrong denominational god. Dulcis mendacium are better than the bitter truth for most it seems.

  • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

    They keep on putting their feet in the same beartrap. You think they’d learn, but I guess not. They obviously don’t even take it seriously.

  • Gus

    You get problems when he mentions god, prays over the PA system, or asks the students to pray. He doesn’t have to go as far as proselytizing to violate the Constitution.

    But the problem really began when a pastor was asked to emcee a memorial event at a public school. Do you expect a pastor to show up and do a memorial without praying or mentioning god?

    If a pastor wants to deliver a 9/11 memorial service, one would assume he has ready access to a church in which to deliver it. If a student wants to attend a religious 9/11 memorial, they’re welcome to go to his church to attend it. This was about forcing students who would not, on their own time, choose to attend a religious 9/11 event to attend one. That’s what every one of these cases is about. Every student can pray to themselves, even in school. Every student can attend religious services at the church of their choice. The school does not need to provide that service, and the real goal (and most will even admit this) of inserting religion into public schools is not to reach the students who already practice that religion, but to coerce students of other or no religion into attending religious events in the hopes of converting them.

  • WallofSleep

    “Our leaders were reminded that our first line of defense was
    not found in alliances, not in weapons of war, but in God almighty

    You people keep saying crap like this, often referencing natural disasters or terrorist attacks where hundreds or thousands of people died, and where no god could be found protecting anyone.

    Your god is either…

    … too weak to do anything. Weaker than us lowly humans, even.
    … too callous to give half a shit about us lowly humans to actually protect us.
    … the wrong god, ‘cuz your’s clearly doesn’t do shit
    … a figment of your imagination that simply does not exist

    Occam’s Razor says it’s the last one.

  • Rationalist1

    Just wait until we’re in the majority. We can preach atheism in schools. We can tell that 9/11 really shows that God doesn’t …

    Wait, alas, I’m a secularist and my morals and principles would not permit me to try to preach to people in a government sponsored activity, especially susceptible children, my opinions of God. If I didn’t have these principles, I’d be no better than that pastor.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    In times past, God had always protected America in this war torn world…

    Except for that time in the War of 1812 when he let the British burn down the White House. And that time in 1941 when he let the Japanese bomb Pearl harbor. And the whole Civil War thing. Other than that, …

  • ShoeUnited

    The most hilarious thing would be if the students studied everything and handed in the paperwork saying that he was wrong (in an overwhelming majority). And now he’s just sitting on the answers hoping nobody asks him what’s in the box labelled “My Shattered Worldview”.

  • Andrew L

    I’m not sure what Pastor Stewart is reading for his summary of Abbington vs. Schempp, but it clearly is NOT the majority opinion he cites, via double quote marks, near the end of his letter.

    First, this opinion is decisively against the position Stewart takes in that a school wide, public address broadcast of Bible verses and prayers was ruled unconstitutional. On an 8 to 1 vote.

    The Stewart quoted phrase “‘Secularism is Unconstitutional” does not appear in this majority opinion. It’s not an unfair paraphrase but the court clearly interprets a narrower definition of secularism than Pastor Stewart does.

    Stewart misstates ‘preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe’ which the opinion then goes on to affirm is NOT what is happening when school/government organized prayer is prevented from happening.


    In other words, bite me God-boy. (I took editorial liberties in changing the ‘g’ to ‘G’)


  • ShoeUnited

    I give you a point for using Latin. Though I think you are missing an “est” if you were to go by traditional.

    Puto, ergo non est deus

  • Randy Meyer

    From one fictional god while we are talking about another fictional one, right?? ;)

  • ShoeUnited

    You forgot “pathologically insane with a worship fetish” and “was trimming his beard hairs”. Always popular favorites.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    More likely tweezing his nose hairs. The tears could have blinded him.

  • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

    HOLY SHIT! I just read the entire letter from the pastor. He thinks what the FFRF is doing is unconstitutional, and he demands an apology from THEM! You gotta be kidding me! There’s crazy, and then there’s this guy.

  • ShoeUnited

    But god wanted a better White House. And while the British were burning down DC he magically created a thunderstorm that put the fire out. And the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor so that America would join the war to help his chose people reclaim Israel. And the Civil War wasn’t so bad. It was a CIVIL war after all. And that was so that we could let black people have our God given freedoms. Until that point they were still mostly worshiping African pagan gods. By then they had come to accept God, his chosen language of English, and his chosen country America.

    Clearly, you atheists have no idea how history worked. I mean, why else was Santa Ana and his men sleeping when the Texans came by and killed him? Because Texas loves Jesus more than any blasphemer who would name themselves after saints and/or our Lord and Savior.

  • ShoeUnited

    I prefer my gods to be lazy and aloof or malevolent. But I’m willing to invest in your bumbling fool category.

  • Mairianna

    I dunno…having the kids research who is right and who is wrong MAY just be the thing the kids need to realize what an A-holes the principal and the pastor are!

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Though it likely won’t be in our lifetimes, we have to make sure it remains a basic tenet of nonreligious philosophy that being in the majority must not become excuse to legislate against the religious. Most of US know this and take it to heart, but we have near-absolute historical evidence that whoever gets too much power starts rationalizing going after the powerless in an effort to grab more power.

  • newavocation

    Someone has got to get a collection plate going at these public sermon or prayer events. It would really help make the point that money for the church is what its all about.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Except when the enemy had chariots of iron. Then it was all “Oh the horror! Oh the humanity!” Maybe God couldn’t overcome a flying metal bird thing.

  • Timmah

    And you know what I aways found funny? I saw that movie like 4 times in the theaters and that line got a big laugh every time. Thor’s pronoucement that the Earth is under his protection followed by Loki’s mocking reply about what a “fantasic job he’s doing with that” is a direct poke at stuff like this.

    Meanwhile a bunch of the people laughing probobly DO think we are under the protection of a god… yet can’t help laughing at the sillienes of it. Well played Whedon.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Dulcis mendacium

    Damn it, stop making me learn new stuff, you sweet, sweet liar, you. I am too lazy to look stuff up in Google.

  • ShoeUnited

    I didn’t even need to read that far. I got as far as Zorach v Clauson (1952) when I started laughing. That decision was that it was OK for schools to allow students to leave the premises for a religious “class” with guardian signature and no school involvement (the case was arguing that it was unfair to other students). And surprise surprise, schools are still allowed to do that.


    Then he quotes Benjamin Huntington. Unfortunately, he must have been quote mining because it actually reads more like this:

    …since Congressman Benjamin Huntington stated, concerning one proposed draft:

    The words might be taken in such latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion.

    And he suggested that:

    The amendment be made in such a way as to secure the rights of religion, but not to patronize those who had no religion at all.

    Finally, on August 20, 1789, Congressman Fisher Ames introduced the wording:

    Congress shall make no law establishing
    religion. or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the
    rights of conscience.

    The Senate amended Ames’s wording slightly so that in it’s final form it read:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an
    establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or
    abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the
    people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a
    redress of grievances.


    And that’s just before I got through page one!

  • Rationalist1

    Exactly. And that is why most thoughtful religious are secularists. I grew up Catholic in a predominately anti-Catholic area and I encountered much anti-Catholic sentiment by teachers and principals. Secularism is the only way to go, whether you are atheist or religious.

  • trj

    I suppose we learned that we need more than one line of defense. Don’t put all your eggs in one invisible basket, or you’ll regret it.

  • trj

    In times past, God had always protected America in this war torn world, and our nation called upon God to do it again.

    This raises the question, does God protect America in just any war? What if it’s a war America started, to get their hands on some country’s oil and to further their own political interests? Does God get behind a war like the one in Iraq that has cost something like 120,000 civilian Iraqi lives, in addition to tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers?

    Does God protect the aggressor?

  • TiltedHorizon

    I speak Spanglish, I think I’ve projected that “skill” in to Latin. lol

  • Randy Meyer

    It’s like that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they found a Japanese soldier that didn’t realize WWII was over. Only difference is no laugh track.

  • Randy Meyer

    It probably would if they were getting the other point of view in this assignment.

  • JET

    Do you work for a textbook publisher? If not, you should consider it.

  • baal

    my google fu is weak today, pretty things?

  • the moother

    Maybe he was there to tell them how the muslim god whooped the ass of the christian god on 9/11?

  • ShoeUnited

    I admit I need to read back what I write before hitting publish. I didn’t capitalize the first God, I for got the ‘n’ on chosen…

    I’m sure I could physically write for Texas, but I’d have trouble sleeping at night on a pile of money.

  • Andrew L

    ShoeUnited, I went with responding to the legal opinion I had some knowledge of. I assumed the rest of his research would be equally weak.

    I suspect that his misquotes, if someone was so inclined, could be tracked backwards to find out what site he was clipping from.

    Hopefully, some of the students who are researching will now find their way here.

    Let us hope, for the sake of his congregation, that his hermeneutics are better.

  • ShoeUnited

    Literally: Sweet lies.
    Though it should be Dulcis est mendacium. Literally: Sweet is a lie. But it would mean sweet lies or lies are sweet.

  • more compost

    This douchebag was threatening those kids! “We took god out of schools, and 9/11 happened! We better put god back, or there is no telling what will happen to YOU!”

  • baal


  • ShoeUnited

    The sad thing is, real life was like that without a laugh track.



  • Ron

    If God is the first line of defense, why do churches install locks and alarm systems? Don’t they trust capital H-I-M?

  • ShoeUnited

    Puto doesn’t mean the same thing in Latin as it does Spanish.

  • # zbowman

    Reminds me of…I think it was Asimov who said it (and I paraphrase): ‘The battle between science and religion was won when churches started putting up lightning rods.’

  • TiltedHorizon

    It sure does not. :) Although I was referring to the tendency to keep sentence structure and continuity in an English style while substituting words. “Sweet lies” having a better flow than “Sweet is a lie”. :)

  • Tainda

    I don’t know about you but I would find a way to get used to it!

  • Anna

    These people need to get fired. That’s the only way they’ll ever stop doing what they’re doing. They know it’s illegal, and they don’t care. They will continue doing it unless there are serious consequences for breaking the law.

  • Mitch

    Isn’t there a reference in the bible somewhere, and I may be paraphrasing a bit, about “sitting on the can for too long”?

  • Tainda

    Whedon is the god

  • mijan126

    If you believe the mythology of the Bible… yeah, allegedly, their god does often protect the aggressor.

  • Gus

    This is very true. To the evangelical mind, nothing is more important than saving souls by exposing kids to the Word of God, whether they like it or not. Not quality education, not wasting taxpayer money on lawsuits, so they just don’t care. But even some of the most ardent evangelicals are likely to reconsider their methods when their ability to feed their family is on the line. A few firings might ultimately result in fewer of these kinds of events happening.

  • Bad_homonym

    And since it’s the same god, I would say he prefers them to us. Ain’t that right pastor S?

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    I think the schools should stop with memorials too.

  • Rain

    … No holding by this Court suggests that a school can persuade or compel a student to participate in a religious exercise. That is being done here, and it is forbidden by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

    Well, O wise and learned pastor? What have ye to say to that? More bungle-headed fallacies?

  • Itarion

    A quick check into Cornell’s online database of historical law documents casts some serious doubts onto the truthful nature of the quotes he used in his letter.

    Also, ellipses just serve to make it sketchier.

    For example, this:
    “Pastor Stewart got a copy of that letter… he responded… explaining… that… He’s wrong.”
    – Hemant Mehta, in his article “Why Was a Pastor Invited to this Public School’s 9/11 Ceremony”

    Ellipses indicate that the quote probably means something else in the proper context, but is being hacked to pieces to look like it means the opposite of what it does. If you want to look legitimate, don’t use ellipses mid sentence.

  • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

    Invite a pastor to a school function and you’re gonna have a bad time.

  • Dave The Sandman

    The thing that has previously, and still does to some extent, protect the USA in times of war is the 3000 miles or so of water on each side. The UK, with its Channel and North Sea, has its moats that have staved off invasions – yours are over 100 times wider.
    Still, even so, that hand of God protecting the USA seems to have taken some time off – 1812 for example. And 1941…..oh and of course the very date the service was about in 2001. And in the 1860s it seems that hand was busy flipping a coin.

  • TheG

    I asked my dad the same question yesterday when he was talking about how he carries concealed in his Catholic church. The ushers carry, too.

  • John

    Well, if iron could stop him, just imagine what modern metals can do.

  • UWIR

    What consequences are they suffering? It seems to me that they it’s not their feet they keep putting in the bear trap. Considering that every time a SOCAS violation gets shut down, there’s a risk of an anti-atheist backlash, and it ends up costing loads in legal bills, it’s the students and taxpayers whose feet that are being out in bear traps, not the administrators’.

  • UWIR

    Minus a point for apparently mixing up “infer” and “imply”, though.

  • W. Howard

    I can easily tell you why the Pastor was there speaking, because WE are a faith based community in Sale Creek and WE will continue to be, WE want our children to grow up with values and morals. WE take our children to church…..ever hear the old saying “Majority Rules” ???? Well there you go, in this case, in this school, in this community the “Majority Rules” Thats how it has ALWAYS been, thats how it is NOW and thats exactly how IT WILL remain…..attendance was optional, so was listening to the Pastor………GET OVER IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Andrew L

    W. Howard, perhaps you should pray for better schools. Ones that would better inform your students that we don’t live in a country where “Majority Rules”. Benjamin Franklin paraphrased well when he put it that ‘democracy was two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.’

    Instead, we live in a country where there are protections for minorities, including minorities of thought, including atheists. You’ve also been misinformed about values and morals being the providence of religion and the church only. Whether something is mandatory or voluntary is not the test of the legality of religious expression organized by a public school.

    It’s okay, someday you’ll GET OVER IT.