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Prayer controversy prompts community reaction
The controversy over prayer in the Chestatee High School football program has generated intense community involvement - photo by Shannon Casas

Since word got out that a humanist legal group sent a letter to Chestatee High School asking that coaches there cease alleged religious activity with the team, at least three prayer events on school grounds have been organized, and social media has erupted with responses.

A Facebook page formed Wednesday to support prayer at Chestatee sporting events, Pray On Chestatee High School, had received nearly 11,000 likes by Thursday afternoon, while the hashtag #prayforchestatee has gained some traction on Twitter.

On-campus prayer events have been held at Chestatee and East Hall high schools — before the beginning of the school day — and one is planned at West Hall High School this morning.

Shanna Cotton, a West Hall parent who is organizing the event there, said she used social media to invite the public to meet her at the school’s softball field this morning at 7:45. Although she plans to hold the prayer meeting on school grounds, Cotton said the event is not affiliated with the school.

“I’m a Christian, and I believe that anybody that wants to pray in the U.S., where we have freedom of religion, should not be smacked down or threatened with a lawsuit,” she said. “I think it’s a disgrace that somebody would threaten to sue anybody in the U.S. for saying a prayer.”

The prayer events have received a large amount of support, as evidenced by the turnout at the events and the number of likes for the Pray On Chestatee Facebook page, but not everyone agrees.

Spencer Stover, a former Chestatee football player and self-described non-Christian, said he never felt pressured or uncomfortable when coaches prayed with the team or brought up religion with players — but he is not very impressed by the prayer events.

“My only issue with that is they weren’t doing it before all of this started at Chestatee, at least not to that degree,” he said. “It makes it look like they’re not doing it out of faith; they’re doing it out of spite.”

Stover, who graduated from Chestatee in 2012, said he is also not impressed with the organization that sent the letter asking the school to cease religious activity, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

“The atheists expect tolerance from everyone, but aren’t showing tolerance themselves,” he said.

Stover said that coaches did engage in prayer with team members and talk to them about religion while he was there, but notes that the coaching staff has changed since that time. He said the coaches were respectful of his nonreligion.

“I made them aware that I wasn’t a Christian,” Stover said. “It didn’t dictate how they treated me. It didn’t dictate my playing time. ... It was never thrown in our faces and we were never belittled because of our belief.”

He said the prayers were always “relevant to football or relevant to real life.”

However, he said it can be difficult to be openly non-Christian in North Georgia.

“I understand as a non-Christian who was not only part of the football program, but also has grown up in North Georgia ... I understand the pressures felt by that and it can be tough at times,” he said, adding, “I felt that in other places, but not with the football program.”

There are some, however, who have felt uncomfortable with religious practices they say happen in local schools.

A commenter on the Times’ Facebook page, who identified herself as a Christian, said her opinion was divided on the issue of religion in schools. She said a coach at her son’s elementary school cited religious reasons when he confiscated a toy she had allowed her son to have, and she felt this had crossed a line.

However, she said she doesn’t see any harm in prayers at school sporting events.

“If it is used to center and calm everyone down why would it bother anyone?” she said. “And if it doesn’t hurt anyone why are people bothered by it?”

The majority of the comments on the page, such as one that said, “God Bless Chestatee ... keep on praying,” were in support of prayer at the school. However, there were some dissenters.

“Frankly, it is not hard to understand,” said one commenter. “Religious activities in a public school must be student initiated and student led.”

Stover said he wishes both Christians and non-Christians would be more understanding.

“Really, neither side of this is able to look at it from the other perspective. Christians can’t see how it feels to be in the minority, and the atheists can’t understand how it feels to be told you can’t practice your faith openly,” he said. “The only reason I’m so outspoken about this is what I would hope to achieve ... that both sides are able to see this from each others’ perspective.”