Foundation, Schools Battle Over Coaches and Prayer

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In several states across the nation, the mix of prayer and high school sports as increased tension between Christians and those who fight for the separation between church and state.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin group that promotes separation of state and church and represents atheists and agnostics, sent a letter earlier this month to the Cape Henlopen School District superintendent saying there was  “a serious constitutional violation occurring at Cape Henlopen High School.” According to Brad Myers of the Wilmington News Journal, in Delaware a photograph of a coach in a huddle praying with his team had been published. At least two people sent the picture to the, and the FFRF sprang into action:

 “Our objection to that is it violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which has been interpreted to say that public school districts and their employees cannot advance or endorse religion while acting in their official capacity.”

The superintendent’s response was short. He said:

“I can assure you that our employees, including coaches, will be reminded of laws involving the Separation of Church and State and will respond accordingly so that an objective/reasonable observer will not perceive their actions as endorsing religion in the future.”

Such is the seemingly never-ending battle between those whose religious practices spill over into schools and those who work to keep them separate.

The Associated Press reports that Aberdeen Central High School in Aberdeen, South Dakota has ended coach-led prayers before football games after someone complained to the FFRF. The nonprofit wrote a letter to the school explaining that saying the prayers violated the US Constitution. Players are still allowed to pray, but coaches may not join them.

“At no time were students ever forced to participate,” Superintendent Becky Guffin said. “We have made the necessary changes, and we have moved forward.”

An Aberdeen pastor, Bob Myers, believes that the rights of the coaches are being violated.

“I think it is appropriate for coaches to join students in their prayer. After all they are a team, and the coach is part of a team. He is part of that community,” Myers said. “I think as long as students initiate it, the coach has every right to express himself in that same way.”

In Arizona, a public prep school varsity football coach received a two-week suspension after asking a player to lead the team in prayer. Area Christians view this as another attempt by secularism to push religion out of the public arena. Not only was the FFRF involved in this incident, but the American Humanist Society (AHS) joined in as well.

Christianity Today, in an article written by Shirl James Hoffman, reminds readers that as far back as 1893, a journalist reported that Princeton, after winning its game with Yale, “naked and covered with mud and blood and perspiration” stood in the locker room to sing the Doxology “from the beginning to end as solemnly and seriously, as ever they did in their lives.”

In recent weeks the FFRF has criticized a Mooresville, N.C. football coach; the AHS has threatened to sue a Gainsville, Georgia high school because its football coach prayed with the team and assigned work-out instructions that included Scripture citations; and has challenged several other schools in Florida and Georgia.