ONEIDA, TENN - For many on the Oneida High School cheerleading squad, faith has always gone hand and hand with Friday night football.
“We need prayer for so many reasons especially in our community now and the troubles we face every day,” said junior Kayla King.
The Oneida Special School district has decided to do away with prayer before athletic events in an effort to avoid national legal action. The district, like dozens of others in the state of Tennessee, has received pressure from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation to end prayer at public schools.
Oneida's director of school's Ann Sexton says they received a letter last fall from the ACLU reminding them it is unconstitutional to hold school sanctioned prayer at football games.
“We were advised to stop the practice,” Sexton said. Instead, they instated a moment of silence before games.
But that didn't sit well with many students and community members in Oneida.
“During the moment of silence all the cheerleaders came together and recited the Lord's Prayer,” King explained.
On Friday night's game against Watertown, the cheerleaders from both teams joined hands and recited the prayer, and they weren't alone.
“In that moment the atmosphere was kind of great because it was nothing but heads bowed, and you heard the Lord's Prayer ring over the football field,” said King.
Kevin Acres has been announcing football games for Oneida for more than a decade, and he said he's been getting lots of questions about the discontinued prayers. That's why on Friday night he explained the change.
“First off, I wanted to let everyone know on both sides of the field, this wasn't our decision or the school board, it was pressure from outside groups,” said Acres.
The ACLU isn't alone in their efforts to stop prayer at public schools. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation also sent letters to every school district in Tennessee after complaints over prayers in 2011.
“As you know, the First Amendment prohibits government policies and practices 'respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' Both the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause operate to protect the religions liberty and freedom of conscience of all Americans. It is well settled that school faculty, coaches, administrators or invited clergy may not lead students in prayer or conduct a prayer during a school event,” read the letter from ACLU.
Acres says it's frustrating but he understands the schools the position.
“The majority of people in this area want to have prayer before a ball game, and I don't think its right for a minority out away from here dictates what we do here,” said Acres.
But Acres says in a way the student led prayer can be seen as a positive.
“Where you had one person saying a prayer over the PA, now you've got hundreds maybe a thousand people saying it together,” he said.
Because while prayer can no longer be said over the loud speaker, the Oneida cheerleaders hope to make sure it's still heard loud and clear.
“It is your option what you do in that moment of silence and this is our option,” explained King.