School to Coaches: Prayer Out of Bounds

A seventh-grade basketball coach in Bunker Hill, Ind., had no business offering prayers at practices and games along with advice on stopping opponents' drives along the baseline.

That was the gist of a directive to all Maconaquah School Corp. officials, coaches and extracurricular sponsors from Superintendent Debra Jones.

Earlier, a parent with a student in the school district had filed a complaint with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The student said the 7th grade boys basketball coach was instigating prayers regularly with his players. The parent was not opposed to prayer but to having it occur without parental permission in a public school.

"The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal and teacher- or school-led prayer in public schools," wrote Foundation Attorney Rebecca Kratz in a letter to the school. Courts have also struck down student-initiated pregame prayer and coaches participating in student prayer circles as unconstitutional.

"The prayers before the Maconaquah Middle School's basketball games and practices constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion," the letter said. The coach's conduct, the letter added, "crosses the line because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee."

Kratz also noted Foundation concerns "that the prayerful practices are not isolated at Maconaquah Middle School, and do not solely occur with the seventh-grade boys' basketball team, but rather are a frequent practice in your district at public school athletic games."

Superintendent Jones said the administration has thoroughly reviewed the complaint with the School Board and the school's attorney. Jones asked all school officials to "reflect on this letter and refrain from leading prayer at any school function as directed by the Supreme Court."

For information on legal issues surrounding school prayer, go to FFRF's Web page "The Case Against School Prayer." For example, why is it dishonest to call any prayer "voluntary" when it's encouraged by a public official?

Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, paraphrased freethinker Robert Ingersoll in noting that praying lips are far less useful than helping hands, especially on a basketball court. "You can't pray your way to a good bounce pass or a 3-point shot. No god cares what happens during a basketball game, and someone imposing their religious sensibilities on others is illegal and wrong."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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