The pastor's remarks lasted for seven minutes during the optional-attendance public school event remembering 9/11.
During that time span the pastor read one Bible verse and mentioned God six times. But that was one verse and six deity name-drops too many for a national group that advocates "freedom from religion."
See, a parent reportedly complained — and it wasn't long until the Freedom from Religion Foundation had its lawyer fire off a letter to the school's board of education criticizing the decision to let the pastor speak to students in the first place.
In fact, the lawyer's letter called the pastor's very presence in the school "divisive and isolating" and "a serious concern."
Alan Stewart, pastor of Rechoboth Baptist Church in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., said he was trying to inspire students through his remarks at Sale Creek Middle-High, about five miles up the road from the church in southeastern Tennessee.
"Did I mention God in the speech that day?" Stewart admits to WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, which reports it viewed a transcript of his speech. "I sure did."
But after the parent's complaint about the pastor's remarks at what was reportedly an optional-attendance event, says WDEF-TV in Chattanooga, the Freedom from Religion Foundation called out the Hamilton County Board of Education.
Stewart says he focused more on the story of 9/11 than religion's role. "I could have talked about the tragedy that day. I could have talked about the terror it sent through the world that day but wanted to focus on the triumphs," Stewart tells WRCB. "Some good things happened that day."
Despite the report that Stewart read one Bible verse, WRCB says the letter by Freedom from Religion Foundation lawyer Andrew Seidel asserts that Stewart's address included numerous biblical quotations.
Stewart was "essentially preaching a sermon to the children," Seidel tells WDEF. "You know he quoted from Luke 13:4, he talked about the power of prayer, he talked about Jesus' response to 9/11...not much grey area here...this is clearly a religious message, and it's at a school-sponsored event, and therefore is unconstitutional."
"Inviting a pastor in the first place should have been a red flag for the school," Seidel adds to WRCB. "Pastors only speak about religious issues for the most part."
Stewart doesn't see it that way.
"It was a day in American history that our people came together and prayed across the land," he tells WDEF. "They prayed not only in churches, they prayed in the marketplace, street corners and civil governments. No one should be coerced to pray, and no one should be forbidden to pray. That's what our founding fathers stood for, and that's what the Constitution and all the amendments have stood for, for all these years."
Stewart tells WRCB that religion has been part of the local community since its foundation. "In the last 20 years of my life I have watched the voice of respect of the church diminish," Stewart adds. "I would have never dreamed since I was a little boy, I would be told in my country that I can't pray. I can't mention God."
Seidel is unmoved, telling WRCB: "It may be ingrained in the community but the Constitution prohibits religion from being in the schools."
As a result of the foundation's complaints, the district tells WRCB that it's retrained staff about keeping religion separate from education; a spokesperson from the Freedom from Religion Foundation says it's pleased with the district's response.
Here's a report from WRCB:
And one from WDEF:
(H/T: Weasel Zippers)