Prayer in schools: Freedom of Religion vs. Freedom From Religion

Image 1 of 30

Decades of legal battles have scrubbed most religion from public schools, but the culture war over faith and prayer in the public square seems as fierce as ever. That's thanks in part to a group of atheists and agnostics that calls itself the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

In recent months, the group has threatened legal action against several Georgia school districts for violating the strict separation of church and state. That has prompted a candidate for Georgia Governor to propose a bill protecting a teacher's right to participate in student-led prayer.

The atheists know their position isn't popular, but they aren't backing down. Both sides sat down with FOX 5 Senior Anchor Russ Spencer.

Spencer: “What would you say to someone in Coweta or Towns County who says you folks are trying to force your secular values down their throats… that their community’s perfectly fine with this?”

Mark Banks, Freedom From Religion: “Well, the problem there is we want people to adhere to the existing laws and the existing laws forbid that.”

Mark Banks is an atheist, one of about 500 Georgia members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin based group that describes itself on its website as “proudly professional pains in the a-- since 1978.”

Banks: “Our constitution is a secular document, as much as people don't want to admit it.”

Banks sat down with Spencer in the pews of a former Civil War-era church in Smyrna that is now the Atlanta Freethought Hall, where he and other non-believers meet.

The foundation has made waves all over Georgia in recent months, firing off warning letters to school superintendents in Towns, Hancock, and Carroll counties and Rome City Schools over complaints from parents about religion on school grounds.

RELATED: Football and prayer, no coaches allowed

The most prominent case emerged last fall when East Coweta High School football coach John Small was photographed bowing his head with his players.

Spencer: “What's wrong with a coach saying a prayer with his players before or after a game?”

Banks: “Well, you're talking about a public school situation... and the public schools that have been, you know, forbidden for quite a few years actually it has gone to the supreme court in many cases.”

RELATED: School rallies around coach after complaints over prayer

State Senator Michael Williams, R – Cumming: “Bowing your head to participate in student-led prayer? You're telling me that we as a country are going to accept the fact that that's not okay? I have a problem with that.”

Williams, a candidate for Georgia Governor, has proposed what he calls the Coach Small Religious Protection Act, to counter what he sees as harassment and persecution from outside organizations.

Williams: “The need for a law is to reinforce that belief that all of us I believe hold that we need to have the ability to exercise our freedom of religion, not only in our home and our churches but in the public square as well.”

The state senator was highly critical of the Coweta County school superintendent for "caving" in his words to "political correctness" after the district responded to the letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation with a memo stating teachers and coaches can't "join hands, bow their heads, take a knee or commit another act that otherwise manifests approval with students' religious exercise."

Williams: “The fact of the matter is he did cave and we need people who are not going to cave under the pressure like this.”

But the law puts school leaders in a bind.

The Foundation complained when a parent in Towns County read Bible stories in a kindergarten class prompting the Superintendent there to remind teachers where the line is.

Dr. Darren Berrong: “This is the first complaint that I'm aware of in our district and we will continue to educate volunteers and staff on the Establishment Clause to ensure no student feels their rights have been violated.”

Banks: “It's a no-win situation.”

Mark Banks knows he and his fellow non-believers are making people angry. He said he's even gotten death threats. But he insists the law -- and reason -- are on their side.

Spencer: “On the website, there is something called the ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ award... ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer.’ That sounds to me like it’s mocking people who believe. 

Banks: “No, not really. it's been proven with scientific studies base on empirical evidence that praying is no better than wishful thinking.”

Spencer: “It kinda does sound like you think you're smarter than people who believe prayer works.”

Banks: “No, not really.”

Senator Williams said he's doesn't see how his bill defending freedom of religion could be unconstitutional. He concedes he did not consult with Coach Small before attaching his name to his Religious Protection Act saying he was trying to protect the coach by leaving him out of it.

For his part, Coach Small said the school has been fully supportive of him.

The bill is set for a hearing in the State Senate this week.