Wisconsin-based atheist group threatens prayer in E. Tennessee

Wisconsin-based atheist group threatens prayer in E. Tennessee

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UT says their non-sectarian prayer prior to the game does not violate the first amendment. UT says their non-sectarian prayer prior to the game does not violate the first amendment.
"People can pray. There are churches on every corner in Knoxville. Is God only going to hear them from the loud speakers?" asked Barker, "People can pray. There are churches on every corner in Knoxville. Is God only going to hear them from the loud speakers?" asked Barker,

By ALEXIS ZOTOS
6 News Reporter

MADISON (WATE) - Hundreds of miles from East Tennessee in Madison, Wisconsin sits the headquarters of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

They've become synonymous with taking prayer out of everything from football games to school assemblies, all in an aim to protect the First Amendment

"We're not barging in to church, dragging people out of the pews and saying how dumb they are. We think freedom's important. Because if it's not important for them, then it's not important for us," said Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The atheist group may not be going into the churches of East Tennessee, but they've threatened lawsuits against the University of Tennessee, Lenoir City, Loudon County Schools, Knox County Commission, and dozens more.

"From the White House down to the principal's office we've fought these battles," Barker boasted.

Working out of a cramped office in downtown Madison, the group has a full staff and legal team. In the last nine months, the group has sent 728 complaint letters nationwide over state-church violations. Sixty of those were to Tennessee.

"We don't go out looking for these small communities. We've been accused of roaming the country looking for violations," Barker explained."We represent complaints from live people in those communities."

But that's exactly how many of the people here in East Tennessee feel.

"When you have an organization that comes in from the outside it looks like they're bullying, and I think that's what it is. They look for wins across the country and for some reason they ended up in Lenoir City," said James Raucci, a concerned citizen of Greenback.

Raucci organized a pro-prayer rally and continues to urge East Tennesseans to fight back.

But the Freedom From Religion Foundation disagrees.

"We're not an outside group. We have members in every state," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president and founder of FFRF.

Gaylor founded the group in the 1970s at the University of Wisconsin. Now, there are nearly 20,000 members nationwide, varying all religious backgrounds, including a former minister as its current co-president

"We get that all the time, what's wrong with you, atheist? When most of us have been there and done that, especially me having been a preacher for 19 years," explained Barker.

Barker and Gaylor are married and run the organization together.  

Barker said they're not trying to take away religion, just keep it out of the public square. One target is the prayer heard by thousands at UT football games.

"Knoxville is wrong to be insensitive to the views of a wide diversity of people in the stands," said Barker. "People can pray. There are churches on every corner in Knoxville. Is God only going to hear them from the loud speakers?"

UT has said their non-sectarian prayer prior to the game does not violate the First Amendment.

Freedom From Religion Foundation agrees, however, others - like UT Chattanooga and Loudon County School Board have abolished prayer for a moment of silence in response to the foundation's request.

But in Lenoir City, Mayor Tony Aikens says they're holding their ground when it comes to the word "religion" on the city's police uniforms

"We're expressing our right, we're upholding everyone's right, we're protecting everyone," Aikens said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened legal action back in March, but Aikens said they will go to court if necessary.

"We don't believe the word religion on the Lenoir City Police Department patch is a violation of their beliefs, we're saying we're protecting them as well as others. Again if you call 911 we're not going to ask what religion you belong to."

But the foundation said if it's government-based, there shouldn't be any mention of religion.

"If our founders didn't need to pray over the Constitution, why do our city or county governments need to pray over liquor licenses and sewers?" Gaylor asked.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's ultimate goal is a day when they won't be needed, but Gaylor said it's a long way off before there is total separation of church and state.

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