Coaches at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes, Del., and Piedmont High School in Piedmont, Ala., will no longer lead their players in prayer or participate in students’ prayers, after receiving letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the Cape Henlopen School District on Oct. 8 after receiving a report that the high school football coaches participated in a team prayer circle. “While students may wish to engage in prayer on their own, school staff, including coaches, cannot participate in or encourage such religious activities,” Cavell informed the district.
In an Oct. 17 response, Superintendent Robert Fulton told FFRF he had discussed the matter with the administration and football coach, and said “employees, including coaches, will be reminded of laws involving the Separation of Church and State.”
In a similar First Amendment violation, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert first wrote to Piedmont City Schools in March, informing the district that Piedmont High’s practice of beginning football games with prayer broadcast over the loudspeaker was unconstitutional.
After multiple follow-up letters from FFRF, Superintendent Matt Akin emailed Markert last summer, informing her, “Beginning immediately, the Piedmont City School District will no longer allow student led prayer at athletic events.”
The complaint is making news again this week after Piedmont High School posted a message on its Facebook page informing the public of its decision. Noting that FFRF had cited numerous Supreme Court cases in its letter, the post said, “While the personal opinions of the administration and employees of the system may differ with the opinions of the Court and the author of the letter sent to the system, the school system’s attorneys advised that we consent since there is established case law regarding this issue.”
USA Today reported, “Piedmont is one of many schools to receive such letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has dramatically increased public awareness of its own message and goals in recent years. While it attempts to limit the spread of institutionalized religion in public places across many forums, it has generated the most notable success in schools, particularly school sports.”
FFRF is a national state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., with more than 21,000 members. FFRF employs five staff attorneys, plus a legal fellow, and has sent out more than 800 formal letters of complaint over state/church violations so far in 2014. Public school violations accounted for the greatest majority of letters. FFRF has halted over 150 state/church violations this year, including 13 related to prayer in public school athletics.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has teamed up with two renowned evolutionary biologists, Richard Dawkins of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jerry Coyne, to ask Georgia Southern University in Statesboro to investigate a professor for promoting creationism.
FFRF, the nation’s largest association of freethinkers, with 21,500 members, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and Coyne of the University of Chicago sent a joint letter Oct. 21.
The letter details complaints from students about GSU history professor Emerson McMullen’s promotion of Christian beliefs. According to those reports and FFRF’s subsequent investigation, McMullen “crosses ethical and constitutional lines.”
McMullen allegedly uses extra-credit assignments to try to “convert” students by inviting them to write about McMullen’s religious beliefs. He has reportedly also promoted Christian propaganda such as the recent movie “God Is Not Dead,” which pits an atheist professor against a Christian student.
Coyne examined some of the class material FFRF uncovered and expertly took apart the unscientific claims, noting that most of what McMullen said on the topic was “completely wrong.”
"A teacher should be free to express opinions, however ill-informed, so long as he or she makes it clear that they are no more than his opinions. He should not be free to penalize students who fail to parrot his opinions,” Dawkins noted. “And if his opinions include Young Earth Creationism, my personal opinion is that he is no more qualified to teach history than a ‘flat earther’ is to teach geography or a proponent of the ‘stork theory’ is to teach reproductive physiology."
“What really disturbs us is the allegation that McMullen gives students extra credit for summing up his own views on religion! That’s not teaching, that’s preaching,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Coyne is the author of Why Evolution is True and Dawkins of such books as The Greatest Show on Earth and The Selfish Gene, as well as his international blockbuster The God Delusion. Coyne’s new book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, is due out in May. Both men are honorary directors of FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 400 members in Georgia.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel headed the investigation.