FFRF ends Florida team chaplain programs

The same Florida school district that is allowing atheists to distribute literature is now abolishing athletic chaplaincies for its teams and removing bible verses from sports venues and apparel.  

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state-church watchdog, has contacted Orange County Public Schools about more than 10 violations in the past 18 months. 

In March, FFRF blasted the schools for allowing team chaplains, putting bible verses on the field and team gear and for including religious music on game footage. Earlier this month, Orange County issued a memo addressing these problems.  

“Having a team chaplain is not permitted as it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in the same manner as a school employee participating in prayer with students,” the memorandum stated. “In this area the law is very clear.” 

Regarding teachers, coaches, and other staff praying with students, the Office of Legal Services wrote: “On this issue the matter is well decided that school personnel “cannot participate in a visible way with the players” during student-led prayer. . . . Please make sure to educate the staff at this and other schools that active participation by any School Board employee and/or non-faculty coach in student-led prayer must not occur as it is contrary to established case law.” 

The school also properly got rid of the bible verses on team signs and apparel, the memo said. “While the signs themselves may be permitted, the reference or citation to a particular Bible verse is deemed to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.” 

The school even agreed with FFRF about banning religious music in videos: "The usage of religious lyrics could be seen as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”

Of course, the Religious Right is in an uproar. On Fox News, Bobby Bowden, retired Florida State University football coach, noted that he didn’t care about the Constitution or the First Amendment prohibition, “I’d do it anyway. . . . I don’t care about political correctness,” Bowden said, “I want to be spiritually correct.”  

There is an open question as to whether the schools will allow the chaplains to remain by simply by changing their name to “life coach,” which FFRF maintains is impermissible. This was only “reported” by Todd Starnes, an extremely conservative Fox News columnist. Starnes, not known for his accuracy or balance, also wrote that “FFRF is attempting to . . . eradicate Christianity in the public marketplace of ideas.”  

“If this ‘life coach’ nonsense is accurate, Orange County can’t avoid this issue with creative wordplay,” argued Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who’s been handling the Orange County complaints for FFRF. 

“The school cannot give preachers access to a captive audience of public school students for a religious purpose, like prayer. Does Orange County really expect people to believe that chaplains, now life coaches, will keep their religion and their bible to themselves? Does the school actually want to be in the business of regulating religious speech? We think not,” added Seidel. 

FFRF still has a number of outstanding complaints with the district, including school-sponsored baccalaureates, holding school events in churches,and forcing students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. But, if this memo and Orange County’s capitulation allowing FFRF to distribute atheist literature to students are any indication, these issues could soon be corrected.

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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