FFRF complaint grounds coach-led prayer in Ohio

Matt Campbell, University of Toledo (Ohio) football coach, will no longer be leading players in pregame prayer. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a May 21 complaint letter to incoming UT President Sharon Gaber after being alerted by a complainant to a video showing Campbell leading the team in the Lord’s Prayer before a 2012 game with Bowling Green University.

A coach leading a public university team in prayer is a “serious and flagrant violation” of the Establishment Clause, Markert noted.

UT’s YouTube account published the video Oct. 19, 2012. It shows Campbell telling the team to form a tight circle before he knelt to lead the prayer.

After the complaint was made public, First Amendment scholars contacted by the Toledo Blade all agreed that Campbell was very likely in the wrong. Howard Friedman, professor emeritus at the UT College of Law and editor of Religion Clause blog, agreed with the complaint’s contention that players felt pressure to participate in the prayer because a coach led it. “It’s really a question of whether they’re speaking on behalf of the university or they’re speaking in their private capacity,” Friedman said. “Here, it’s pretty clear [Campbell] is not speaking in his private capacity.”

H. Louis Sirkin, of the Cincinnati law firm of Santen & Hughes, said, “[I]f you have players that don’t believe in God or whatever, or in prayer, I think it puts them in an uncomfortable position. I don’t think it should be done in a public university.”

In a statement reported June 12 by the Blade, Campbell said that in the future, “To ensure UT football continues to bring people together, players will determine on their own any personal preparation methods to help them mentally prepare to play the game we love.” The FFRF victory was big news in Ohio and the sporting world.

Freedom From Religion Foundation