About PTO Prayer

The following piece was published on the front page of the October 4th Sewanee (TN) Mountain Messenger.

As has been reported in the past week, the Franklin County (TN) School Board was contacted on September 10th, 2013, by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.  In their letter, FFRF reported that, according to a parent, “during the last academic year, teachers at North Lake Elementary took it upon themselves to express their reìigious, particularly Christian, viewpoints.” These included, they go on to say, memos sent home at Christmas claiming “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and candy canes distributed with a Christian interpretation attached.

At the same time, the President of the Parent-Teacher Organization at North Lake also received a letter from FFRF, in which they allege that PTO meetings are opened with a Christian-based prayer, led by the President.  They ask that this practice be stopped. As they write, “These prayers inappropriately alienate those that do not believe in the religious views expressed in the prayers. North Lake Elementary parents that do not share those beliefs are adversely affected by these prayers, which turn non-believers into outsiders of their children’s school.”

Based upon this information, Director of Franklin County Schools, Dr. Rebecca Sharber, directed the North Lake principal to make certain that all such activities in the school come to an end. In doing so, the Director pointed to long-standing court rulings to the effect that matters of religion be kept out of public education.

It is not so clear whether the court rulings about prayer and public schools cover the activities of a Parent-Teacher Organization, which is a voluntary association.  As it is unclear, however, Dr. Sharber solicited the advice of the school system’s legal counsel. It was his opinion that, in order to minimize possible liability, the PTO be requested to substitute a moment of silence for open prayer at the start of their meetings. On this advice, Dr. Sharber and the principal met with the PTO officers and advised them not to pray aloud, but they indicate they will do so at their next meeting.

The Franklin County School Board has regularly scheduled meetings at 6:30 pm on October 7th and 14th, and because of the extraordinary interest in this topic, will meet at FCHS Auditorium.  Large crowds, mostly pro-prayer, are expected to be in attendance.

My own feeling is that the Dr. Sharber has acted appropriately in this matter, and in fact I urged her to take the actions that she has.  To my mind, the point of a PTO is to facilitate interaction between parents and teachers for the benefit of children in the school. I believe that FFRF has a point when they say that non-Christian parents feel alienated by the PTO officers’ actions, and it was hearing from one such parent that they became involved. More importantly, I believe the FFRF is looking for a reason to bring a lawsuit against a PTO on the matter of prayer.

While there are far more important matters before us—chief among them, the new 105-minute Reading Street program now in use in all county elementary schools—the issue has captured wide attention, and will need to be addressed by the School Board.  If these matters are of interest to you, I urge you to attend one or both of the meetings this month at Franklin County High School.

Chris McDonough
Franklin County School Board
Representative, Fifth District
(Sewanee, Sherwood, Keith Springs)

Postscripts. Below are follow-up pieces on the controversy over  prayer and the PTO in our county.

  • Of interest is the rally hosted at North Lake School in favor of PTO prayer on September 28th, which FFRF claimed was “nothing short of a school-sponsored religious revival”–video can be seen here:


Various reports follow about the contentious October 7th meeting of the School Board, where I was interrupted at various points, booed, and told to “Go back to Sewanee!” while arguing for a moment of silence (At some point the future, I will post my own reaction to this meeting).

  • Report by Nashville Channel 4 is here:


  • Article in the Winchester (TN) Herald Chronicle is here:


  • Article in the Sewanee Mountain Messenger is here (pages 1 & 6)


  • One wag at local station WXYZ noted a few days later that my suggestion for a moment of silence had been unpopular, and suggested instead “a moment of noise.”
  • Discussion of the Messenger article on Patheos by Hemant Mehta


  • An editorial in the Winchester Herald Chronicle asking the PTO not to pray:  “So, not including someone because they’re different…say, that’s not very Christian-like, now is it?”:


  • FFRF, claiming “legal victories” on their Facebook page, issue a press release  in which they assert they have “recently ended several First Amendment violations in Franklin County schools”:


At the October 14th meeting of the School Board, a change in the status of all PTOs in the county was approved so that they are clearly designated as volunteer groups and not school-supported organizations, and hence not officially affiliated with the school system. This move may keep us out of court with the litigious FFRF, but still leaves non-Christian parents alienated. The measure passed with 7 voting yes and 1 abstaining (me).

  • Article about the October 14th meeting in the Sewanee Mountain Messenger is here (pages 1 & 6):


  • Article about the October 14th meeting in the Winchester (TN) Herald Chronicle is here:


  • An editorial supporting the measure as “not knuckling under” to FFRF from the Independent Herald of Oneida, TN


It had been my intention to vote for the measure, as I think it represents a good compromise, but after 400+ audience members at the meeting loudly recited the Lord’s Prayer during the School Board’s moment of silence (as they had also done at the October 7th meeting), I understood as I never had before just how belligerent such proclamations of faith can sound, and how they can make one feel unwanted, alienated, and threatened.

But, aside from me and my bruised feelings, it’s a favorable situation for everyone else, right?  The PTO officers can now pray legally, a matter their church-leaders are pleased with, even as the FFRF also claims “legal victory” for enforcing church/state separation. The local politicians who found a shovel-ready cause in the prayer issue are surely smiling, as well.  Win-win!

But who pays the price for all these happy outcomes? I suppose it’s the dues-paying parents of the PTOs, who now will have to find the money to pay their newly-unaffiliated organizations’ liability insurance, in schools where the median household income is very low. Nothing a bake sale or two can’t handle, I suppose (it will cost about $250). But sadly, those non-Christian parents, who brought the complaint in the first place, have been abandoned by their public officials, and will have to deal with their sense of exclusion on their own.

(It is probably worth noting that most of this controversy in Franklin County took place within the context of the shutdown of the federal government.  To me, as a participant in the local events, the toxic political atmosphere of Washington certainly felt like it was influencing local events.)


About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Bible, Education, Sewanee, Tennessee. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to About PTO Prayer

  1. Sarah Davenport says:

    Since PTOs are, as you note, voluntary organizations with no parent umbrella association, it seems that the legality of the Christian-based opening prayers and other pro-Christian actions would depend on whether the Franklin County PTO utilizes any public funds or spaces in either its work or meetings. Given that most PTOs have a stated goal of bringing together parents and teachers to support students, it would follow that using language that excludes a segment of those populations does not align with the vision of the PTO.

    • Hi Sarah– Thanks for your message. It’s been a rancorous few days, but I think we may have a solution. If the PTOs are redesignated as simple parent groups, with teacher involvement coming by invitation of the group and not from the principal, their involvement with the schools is severed, and the issue of quasi-school prayer disappears.

  2. Tina Shang says:

    It still doesn’t solve the issue of alienating parents and teachers and the utter lack of respect, for those who oppose, that has been on display at these meetings by some school board members and those in attendance.

    I am sure that the minority in this case do appreciate the few who spoke up on their behalf, but must be extremely disappointed in the direction this is heading.

    • Hi Tina– Thanks for writing. The move to make PTOs entirely voluntary will keep us out of court, maybe. It doesn’t help out non-Christian parents at all, which is why I felt I had to abstain during last night’s vote. But in the end, it was a workable compromise, which is more than Washington has been able to achieve.

  3. Pingback: Circumspice: Reflection in the Wren Chapel | uncomelyandbroken

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