The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently threatened to sue East Coweta High School of Sharpsburg, Georgia. Because the school’s football coaches have been praying with their football team.The district has warned coaches to stop joining the students in prayer, or face disciplinary actions.
In the small town south of Atlanta, football coach John Small often joined his students in prayer, that is until last month when the Freedom From Religion Foundation began sending threatening letters to district officials warning that coaches joining students in prayer is “illegal,” Fox 5 reported.
“It’s not allowed because it sends a message to students that the school is endorsing the religion,” Freedom From Religion Foundation representative Chris Line said.
The foundation spokesman also said that coaches joining the prayer circle may intimidate other students.
“They may realize the coach likes the prayer, and he wants prayer to take place, so I’m going to single myself out if I choose not to participate,” Line exclaimed.
Dean Jackson, Coweta Schools public information officer, denied that the team’s coaching staff ever led the prayers in the first place.
Still, after the foundation’s interference, a district lawyer released a statement reading in part:
Representatives of the school cannot participate in any student-initiated or student-led prayer or other worship while acting in their official capacity. For instance, they cannot join hands, bow their heads, take a knew or commit another act that otherwise manifests approval with the students’ religious experience.
Students and coaches have been engaging in prayer for many years at East Coweta High. A former student, Clayton Herndon, told the media that his teammates and coach also prayed.
“We said the Lord’s prayer at the 50-yard line before every game, after the game we prayed together as well,” Herndon told Fox. That was 14 years ago, Herndon now coaches young players, and does the same with them. “I coach 8-year-olds on a football team, and I pray with them every day.”
Few supported the district’s move. For instance, parent Alice Thompson told the media, “What kind of leader would you rather have than somebody that would pray for their children, for your children, for all of our children?”
Another parent, Brian Pace whose son plays on the team, criticized the decision to prevent coaches from even participating in the prayer circle.
“If you feel the coach is leading the prayer, I could understand the separation of church and state,” Pace said, “but what’s to say he can’t take a knee and have one of his players stand up and pray?”
But Coweta School Superintendent, Steve Barker, insisted that it was safer to “follow the law” than buck the high costs of lawsuits threatened by the anti-religion group, according to The Newnan Times-Herald.
“As superintendent, it is very important that when we have any matter with a legal question that we pass along the information to our employees,” Barker said. “Obviously we have responsibilities to our students. We also want our employees to be aware of anything that they might not even understand to be a problem from a legal perspective.”
“I feel like it is my responsibility to make sure that we are following the law,” Barker concluded.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.