Indiana team’s trip a flagrant constitutional violation

1AdamTinney

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is warning an Indiana school district about allowing its high school soccer team to go on a Christian mission trip.

The NorthWood High School girl's soccer team, part of Wa-Nee Community Schools in Nappanee, took a mission trip to Panama last month. The excursion had been organized by the head coach through association with SCORE International, a short-term mission organization with an explicitly Christian agenda.

On its website, SCORE — which stands for "Sharing Christ Our Redeemer Enterprises" — lists its core values as including evangelizing the "lost" and expressing the Gospel. Its vision statement is: "To glorify God through missions in obedience to the Great Commission." (Matt. 28:19–20, 1 Peter 4:7–11.)

As an official representative of the public high school, Coach Phil Ummel inappropriately promoted the mission trip to a local news channel that was covering it. He also encouraged his athletes to go as a team. This would be the third such trip he has taken with his team, and Ummel stated that it is his goal to make it a tradition to attend the religious trip every three years. Some of the students who were interviewed in the televised news coverage mentioned that they were "looking forward to spreading the word of God" and becoming "closer to God" as part of the trip.

Public schools may not advance or promote religion. So, a public school coach bringing a team of student athletes on a mission trip through an organization with an evangelical purpose demonstrates a blatant promotion of Christianity over other religions, and of religion over nonreligion. In addition to simply being unconstitutional, this religious advancement excludes non-Christian and nonreligious students.

And the fact that participation in the mission trip was voluntary is irrelevant. Time and again, courts have rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation. Similarly, the fact that SCORE is a private organization does not make the mission trip constitutional. Ummel's promotion of and participation in the mission trip while representing Wa-Nee Community Schools as a soccer coach are flagrant violations of the Establishment Clause.

"Public school officials in their professional capacities may not proselytize or encourage students to engage in religious activities, and must remain impartial in all matters regarding religion," writes FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne to Superintendent Joe Sabo. "Coach Ummel did not remain neutral here; he used his position as a district employee in order to promote his personal religion, and recruited his student athletes to help him." 

FFRF is requesting that Ummel refrain from promoting or taking students on future mission trips.

"It is well outside the bounds of a public school employee to suggest what religious activities its students should participate or not participate in," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "This is a shocking violation of the hallowed principle that state education and religion should be kept separate."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members and chapters across the country, including over 400 in Indiana. FFRF's purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Photo via Shutterstock by Adam Tinney

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.

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