Focus on touchdowns, FFRF advises Indiana football coach

1EvansvilleThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is advising an ostentatiously devout Indiana public school football coach and his school district to focus on the game.

A concerned community member contacted FFRF to report that F.J. Reitz High School personnel, including head football coach Andy Hape, prayed with student athletes after a game against Mater Dei High School on Oct. 13. A local newspaper printed a photo with the caption "Reitz Head Coach Andy Hape prays with his team" (seen above). FFRF's complainant has informed the state/church separation group that in addition to praying with students, Hape and several of his assistant coaches also regularly promote religion to students.

It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer, participate in student prayers or to otherwise promote religion to students, FFRF informs the school district.

"The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools," FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne writes to Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation Superintendent David B. Smith. "Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students' prayers. It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students." 

In Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick (2008), the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held the high school football coach's history of organizing, leading, and participating in prayers before games was unconstitutional. In that case, the court stated that the coach's involvement in the prayer by "taking a knee" and "bowing his head" during the prayers, even when student-led, "would lead a reasonable observer to conclude he was endorsing religion."

The court in Borden also rejected the coach's argument that the school district's policy of prohibiting its employees from engaging in prayer with students violated the employees' right to free speech. In fact, the court found that the school district had a right to adopt guidelines restricting this activity because of its concern about potential Establishment Clause violations.

Coach Hape's conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district representative, FFRF asserts. Certainly, he represents the school and the team when he acts as a school football coach. When public school employees acting in their official capacities organize and advocate for team prayer, they effectively endorse religion on the district's behalf.

"Football games should be about athleticism, not religion," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Play, don't pray!"

FFRF is urging the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation to ensure that in the future, Reitz High coaches will not pray with students during district athletic programs and will not otherwise use their position as district coaches to promote religion.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with about 30,000 members across the country, including more than 450 in Indiana. FFRF's purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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