For years, Lowndes County, Georgia High School has had a student-led prayer before its Friday night football games. But for the game on September 6, there was no prayer allowed...on purpose. The school board had heard from the Freedom From Religion Foundation that a parent had complained about it, and the FFRF asked that they omit the prayer.
The school board complied with the "no prayer" request for that game. But for many in this community located deep in the Bible Belt, that was unacceptable. Facing a backlash, the board had to come up with another option.
WCTV Eyewitness News reported that Board Chairman Dave Clark said board members understood the community concern that a cherished tradition was being halted, but the board had to have time to make sure its policy and practice followed the law.
"We knew coming in after our meeting last week that we had to put some work on it because our constituents were not going to let us say no way," Clark told WCTV.
The following week the board had an answer: allow students to present anything before the game, whether a song, a poem, or a prayer.
According to WCTV, the new policy states students participating will be chosen by the administration at the high school based on academics and program. Then it will be the student's choice if he or she wants to say a prayer or not.
When the new policy was read to a packed board room on Monday, the crowd erupted in cheers and praise for the board's decision.
"What message do you want Lowndes County, and most importantly these students to learn from your decision, and you voiced overwhelmingly the right one," said Darrel Presley, President of the Vikings Touchdown Club, according to the TV station.
Apparently, the general belief among those listening to the new policy is that the choice made most often by the students will be prayer.
"God won," Joe Copeland told WCTV. "That was the whole plan all along, I think it's awesome that we've got kids in school that want to pray to God and attend church."
It's not the first time the Freedom From Religion Foundation has challenged Christian practices that are a tradition in many communities.
CBN News reported that the atheist group challenged a Middle Tennessee school district earlier this month because some members of the football team had been baptized in a tub on the football field after practice. Supposedly, someone had complained when pictures of the event were seen on two coach's Twitter pages. But in this case, after review, the school district determined no laws or policies were broken.
"Specifically, the activities … were student-initiated, student-led, and occurred after the practice session had ended, and after school hours," the statement read. "All participation was voluntary with no requirement for attendance either stated or implied."
And the person doing the baptizing was acting as a volunteer "character coach" and was not employed by the district.
The district's attorney even questioned the group's complaint altogether.
"We have not received a single phone call from anyone asking us about [these baptisms]. Zero," he said. "If we have concerned parents or community members, I would think they would need to contact the district office about it instead of turning to organizations that aren't even based in Tennessee."
Similar situations occurred in Alabama and Georgia held in recent years when the FFRC tried to stop a football team from praying before a game in the locker room, or a school from using a loudspeaker to lead a prayer in the stadium before a game. All attempts to stop people from praying failed when the community – like Lowndes Country – came up with a creative solution to the challenge or resisted it outright.