After Lee County Schools Superintendent James McCoy started enforcing a ban on public prayer before football games, Mike Green, owner of Smiths Station business Green's Propane Gas, created a GoFundMe to raise money for a sign that would display the Lord's Prayer at Smiths Station High School's football stadium.
The GoFundMe raised over $4,000 in four days, and Green said he received $1,000 more through in-person donations, enough to purchase the sign.
Green was set to help sponsor the stadium's new scoreboard by placing an ad for his business on it, but switched to the Lord's Prayer sign after the school system started enforcing the ban.
However, Green said that school officials informed him on Monday that he could not purchase the sign with the Lord's Prayer.
"If they don't want to read it, they shouldn't read it — people who want to read it can," Green said. "[The sign] was more for pride of the school and letting people know that we wouldn't really back down."
According to a complaint sent on Aug. 31 to the school system by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national non-profit that promotes the separation of church and state, a parent contacted the organization after an Aug. 25 Smiths Station High football game, the first of the season.
Before the game started, a student-led prayer was broadcast over the stadium's loudspeaker. A parent who was at the game contacted the FFRF afterward to inquire about the legality of the prayer.
"The parent wanted to know if it was unconstitutional and wanted to know if we could do anything about if it was," said Rebecca Markert, legal director for the FFRF. "We said yes and so we sent a letter."
In response to Green's GoFundMe, the FFRF sent another letter to the school system's lawyer on Monday.
"Students, parents and community members who attend football games would be required to routinely see this school-sponsored religious message," the letter says. "It makes no difference if the religious manner is paid advertising. Because scoreboard messages carry the stamp of approval of the school system, they must not include religious icons and must not promote religious messages."
It is not clear if it was the letter that prompted the school system to act.
"I am not sure about when he was denied the ad, so it’s likely that the district reached this decision before we were able to weigh in," said Chris Line, a lawyer with the FFRF, in an email.
Now, Green said he plans to return the money if donors request it and will give the remaining amount to the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes group.
The FFRF litigates church-and-state cases and often sends letters on behalf of people who contact them.
"The case law is pretty clear on what is permissible in schools as far as religion is concerned and what schools can and cannot do," Markert said. "Typically when we get these type of complaints, we are able to settle them without going to a lawsuit."
In the complaint originally sent to McCoy, the FFRF cites a number of Supreme Court rulings, including Santa Fe Independent School System v. Doe, when the court held that student-held prayer at public school football games is unconstitutional.
"Not only is the district endorsing these prayers by allotting time for them at the start of games, but it is also providing the prayer-giver with the public address system needed to impose these prayers on all students and community members at games," the original letter from the FFRF says.
On Sept. 19, the school system's lawyer responded to the FFRF.
"McCoy has informed his principals that he expects all Lee County Schools to comply with current law," said William Sanderson, a lawyer for the school system, in the response.
Though Markert said they get a lot of complaints about potential First Amendment violations from Southern states, especially during football season, complaints can come from all over the country.
"We also get complaints from Michigan and California and places like that," she said. "Not just about prayer before football games, but prayer in other contexts or proselytizing that are happening in the public schools."
The Plainsman has reached out to Lee County Schools numerous times but has not received a response.