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.