When a Knoxville-based TV news crew appealed to Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens for an interview following a reporter's recent trip to Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, Aikens appeared happy to oblige and answer questions about his position on the city police department uniform patch, which includes the word "religion."
FFRF charged in a letter written earlier this year that the police department's patches were in constitutional violation of the separation of church and state.
Aikens said he has not received correspondence from the organization, which is based in Madison, in months.
"Where you do guys stand with prayer at city council meetings?" Alexis Zotos, with WATE-TV in Knoxville, asked Aikens during a press conference Tuesday at City Hall. Zotos returned from Wisconsin this past weekend.
"We establish ordinances and laws within the city, so therefore, we believe we're exempt from that," Aikens said, distinguishing council from a board that makes policy. "We have different people with different faiths coming in and doing prayer, and that's never been an issue. ... They've never said anything to us about that. It's always been about the police patch."
Aikens noted that pastors from different denominations attend city council meetings to deliver prayer. When asked about the police patches, Aikens said Lenoir City officials had no plans to take any action.
"We're going to continue on the course that we're on," Aikens said. "We believe that we're protecting people of all faiths. We would hope that (FFRF) would understand that if you call 911, we're not going to ask you where you go to church at or if you don't go to church or wherever.
"We're going to respond, and we believe that we're right, and we would hope that they would reconsider that and look at it," he said.
Residents are fine
Aikens said the city had received no complaints from residents about the patches.
"None at all," Aikens said. "It's just the opposite. As you say we had a tremendous support when it aired on FOX News when the story broke, I had probably 200 emails in one day, people all over the United States, not just in Loudon County and Lenoir City. We believe (the) people believe that we're right."
In a related issue, Lenoir City Schools received a letter from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State that charged the school board with continuing prayers at meetings.
"At several recent Board meetings, a local pastor stood, asked for and received permission from the Board to deliver a prayer, and then prayed - 'in Jesus' name' - just before the Board meeting began," according to the organization's Oct. 17 letter. "The Board did not rule the speaker out of order or otherwise make any effort to stop him."
The organization requested a response from the school board within 30 days.
"We can assure you that the Board's previous insistence that its promotion of religion is a purely internal matter, see April 4, 2012 Letter at 1, will not make this issue go away," the letter said.
People 'behind us'
Regarding charges against the city and the school board, Aikens was asked whether he felt that Loudon County was being singled out by FFRF and other groups from out of town.
"They say that they're receiving complaints from certain individuals," Aikens said. "I haven't received any of those complaints personally, so I feel like the people of Lenoir City is behind us on this."
Aikens said the city had no plans to change any policies in response to FFRF or others. "None at all; we're going to stay the course," he said.