The American Civil Liberties Union filed three successful legal actions resolved between 2008 and 2011 contending public school systems in Tennessee were sponsoring religious activities, including allowing school-related prayer.
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Then, with Christian conservatives suggesting the state’s schools were becoming increasingly hostile to religion, Tennessee lawmakers passed a law targeted at protecting religious expression in the classroom. Gov. Bill Haslam in April 2014 signed the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, "which affirms that religious students should have the same free-speech rights as secular ones," reported The Atlantic
Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, told The Atlantic why legislators thought the bill was needed: "Christian conservative groups have for many years been frustrated by what they see as a hostile environment for religion in public schools. They are convinced — with some justification — that there's a lot more that public schools can be doing to protect religious expression."
The bill’s creation was motivated in particular by a Memphis teacher’s denial of a fifth-grader’s request to be allowed to write about God in an essay about "her idol," The Atlantic reported.
A reluctance by Tennessee educators to mix schools and religion may have stemmed in part from the ACLU’s success in lawsuits it filed against three of that state’s school districts. The Sumner County Board of Education voted in December 2011 to enter into an agreement with the ACLU that "ends the unconstitutional pattern and practice of religious activities in the Sumner County School System," the ACLU announced on its website.
The ACLU had filed suit the previous May against the district on behalf of nine students attending five schools there. The suit alleged the district violated state law by allowing posters advertising events with religious themes to be distributed to students, the Gallatin News reported. The ACLU said on its website that the district also opened school board meetings with prayer; held school events at churches; let teachers lead students in prayer and Bible studies; and opened its schools to youth ministers, who would speak with students at lunch tables.
The Tennessee ACLU succeeded twice in the previous three years in changing school district policies on religious activities, Baptist News Global said.
That website reported: “In 2010, Cheatham County schools agreed to a court order requiring that religious practices at the school halt and in 2008 a federal judge ordered the Wilson County schools to end their endorsement of religion.”
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The latter case went to trial only after the Wilson County school board rejected a proposed settlement through which it would have agreed to hold religious activities at one of its schools only after regular school hours, and make it clear the district didn’t endorse or promote any religious activities or beliefs, Out & About Nashville said.
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