SODDY DAISY — When Alan Stewart, pastor of Rechoboth Baptist Church here, was asked to speak at a 9/11 memorial on the campus of nearby Sale Creek Middle/High School, he readily agreed.
Stewart prepared a seven-minute message which he delivered Sept. 11 at the event sponsored by Sale Creek’s ROTC program.
The message took place around the flag pole of the school and it was not mandatory for students to be there.
Stewart emphasized his message was not a sermon. “A preacher can’t preach a sermon in seven minutes,” he joked.
He did talk about the tragic events of 9/11 and recalled how the nation was brought to its knees in wake of the tragedy. He recalled how members of the United States Congress and House of Representatives stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless America.”
Stewart recounted how Americans gathered for prayer in “churches, in classrooms, in the marketplace, on the street corner, and in government offices.” With all the prayer that took place following the events of 9/11, Stewart, however, could not recall a single protest about prayer that day.
When his message was over, Stewart closed with a simple prayer. The response was overwhelmingly positive, he recalled, noting both students and teachers came to him, thanking him for the presentation.
Apparently at least one person was not in agreement.
Two weeks after his presentation, the Hamilton County Board of Education attorney received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) chastising Sale Creek.
According to the letter, the FFRF “is a nationwide nonprofit organization with more than 19,000 members across the country and more than 250 members in Tennessee. Our purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.
“While it is laudable for Sale Creek Middle/High School to organize a memorial assembly honoring the victims of 9/11, it is unconstitutional to allow religious messages and prayer to be part of the school-sponsored event,” according to the letter from Andrew L. Seidel, staff attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
The letter also noted that “including prayer and references to a Christian god at a school assembly is divisive and isolating.”
The letter included examples of several court cases which supported the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s position.
The letter called on the Hamilton County School District to take steps to ensure that future assemblies do not include prayer. It also called for the Sale Creek students and faculty to receive an apology and an explanation as to why it was inappropriate for the assembly to have included religious messages.
The school principal gave Stewart a copy of the letter from FFRF. Stewart asked and received permission to respond.
Not only is Stewart a pastor, he minored in history in college and he has more than a working knowledge of how government works.
In his letter, Stewart challenged FFRF’s stated purpose. “The phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is never found in any governing document, but the founding fathers of our nation did believe in a government that would not establish, financially support, or legislate the function of the church,” Stewart wrote. “So, rightly understood, they may have believed in ‘separation of church and state,’ but never for a moment did they believe in the separation of God and government,” he continued in the letter.
Stewart acknowledged that “times have changed. Indeed they have. In our culture that boasts of being diverse, refined, and politically correct, the course of direction we have charted is one which allows pornographers and radical protestors to enjoy broad First Amendment protection while the display of a nativity scene is said to violate First Amendment values. It would seem the only thing no longer given equal protection by the First Amendment is anything that involves God.”
The Soddy Daisy pastor also used court decisions to debunk what the FFRF attorney wrote.
“It is clear that the FFRF has presumed upon a fact that most Americans, including those within the Christian community, are not educated well enough to defend these issues and are prone to accepting at face value any written statement placed before them.
“Sadly you are correct. However, as I have read through the noted objections of the FFRF, many of the citations used as a defense are either misapplied or misinterpreted,” Stewart wrote. He included several examples in his letter.
Stewart also turned the tables on FFRF, noting that the actions of their organization “are unconstitutional based upon Justice Tom Clark’s declaration in the Supreme Court decision in the 1963 case, School District of Abington Township vs. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963). Clark wrote: “Secularism is unconstitutional … preferring those who do not believe over those who do believe …”
Stewart concluded his letter:
“Based upon this declaration and the fact that the FFRF has repeatedly used misinterpreted rulings by the Supreme Court as the basis for their intimidating demands, it is both right and proper that every school district, principal, teacher, staff, and student affected by these actions receive an apology.
“My desire is to ensure our educational leaders are able to use their professional training, life skills, and experience to enrich and equip their students for life without the fear of retaliation and suppressing the dictates of their own conscience.”
Stewart’s letter was dated Oct. 1. As of Nov. 8, he had received no response from FFRF.
Stewart said he wrote the letter to dispel untruths and myths. The establishment clause of the First Amendment “does not keep you from talking about God,” he said.
Stewart is especially concerned that a generation of young people in today’s culture is hearing a message that what we do is unconstitutional.
“God has burdened my heart. A generation of children is hearing a trumpet blow an uncertain sound. Someone needs to blow the trumpet of truth.”
He feels strongly that God is leading “a country preacher to show people how to defend charges” from organizations such as FFRF and the ACLU.
The story has been picked up by national media and Stewart has received requests from schools all over the country to speak.
He noted that pastors should not be afraid to accept speaking engagements at schools and schools should not shy away from asking ministers to speak.
Pastors can speak in schools, Stewart emphasized. “We can mention our faith. It’s what we do.”
Stewart, who has been in the pastoral and evangelism ministry for 30 years, said he has spoken at many schools and will continue to do so.
Having opportunities to speak on campuses enables him to build a level of trust with parents and students in his community, Stewart said, noting he is often called to respond to emergency situations by people in the community who are not members of his church. “I am not a political leader, but I am a spiritual leader in the community,” he stressed.
Though he has garnered attention with his letter to FFRF, Stewart says the real “hero” is Sale Creek principal Tobin Davidson. “He has been an example of courage to me. His influence inspired me to stand with him on this issue. I didn’t need to leave him alone.”
As Stewart reflects on what has transpired since his 9/11 address he says he would not do anything differently. “I did not do anything that I should have been made to feel ashamed,” he said.