Freedom from Religion, an atheist group based hundreds of miles away in Wisconsin, is making waves in East Tennessee.
It's a name you have likely heard recently. They have made themselves known by questioning prayer at school events and public meetings, Ten Commandment statues, and police patches in East Tennessee.
This year alone, Freedom from Religion has written 39 letters to Tennessee government bodies and school systems asking them to stop their practices and threatening lawsuits. The foundation's focus is to remove religion from government.
Freedom from Religion has more than 19,000 members with 300 of them in Tennessee. Co-president Laurie Annie Gaylor said they have had much success in their more than 30 years of existence. But some East Tennessee governmental bodies seem unfazed by their demands.
They succeeded in getting Lenior City schools to stop praying before school board meetings and football games, but this week the city refused to remove the word religion from their police patch.
Thursday morning, Knox County Commission also rejected their request to stop praying before the meetings. Instead, the Rules Committee recommendeded a written prayer policy to the full commission that Knox County's Law Director, Joe Jarret, said would protect them in a lawsuit.
"I'll have to disagree with their [Freedom from Religion's] interpretation of the law. It is certainly legally permissible for the commission to do so, especially in the matter in which they have done it in the past," said Jarret. Jarret said the law however does draw a line of distinction with schools.
"They pray in the federal House and Senate and in the state House and Senate. It's been a tradition and I don't think we should change it," said Knox County Commission Vice Chairman Brad Anders.
Anders doesn't understand why the group is involved in local affairs.
"I think they need to let communities be the community that they are," he said.
But Gaylor said the letters are in response to complaints from concerned members and citizens-- many who don't feel comfortable voicing their opinions in public. Gaylor said the complaints started rolling in in the fall of 2010 because of prayers at football games. They haven't stopped since.
Gaylor said the group isn't as distant as you might think. Knoxville member Sharron King, an atheist, has been a member for 15 years. She said she is offended by public prayer.
"People who prefer to have no religion should not have it forced on them," King said, "I just really think it [public prayer] is forcing people of different beliefs to pretend like they share the beliefs."
King believes a good compromise would be a moment of silence. She doesn't understand why that option wasn't on the table.
Freedom from Religion said they have accomplished many of their goals simply through letters of warning. While that hasn't always worked in East Tennessee, Gaylor says they aren't finished trying.
"We hope we will prevail. We don't necessarily expect instantaneous victories here. This is a process of education or reeducation in some cases," said Gaylor.