Fla. school district should stop taking part in religious football event, FFRF insists

Flagler County

The Flagler County school system is committing a major foul in being a part of an annual religion-suffused football event, contends the Freedom From Religion Foundation in a letter of complaint to the district.

Each year, Flagler County Public Schools participates in a religious event called Football Sunday at the Palm Coast United Methodist Church. Superintendent James Tager, Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Thom Russell and Mantanzas High School Principal Jeffery Reaves all join in this religious worship service, and the event is attended by members of both schools’ football teams, coaches, cheerleaders and the band (which performs there).

Flagler Palm Coast High School head football coach Travis Roland said at last year’s event:

I was raised in a Christian household and we can’t preach religion in high school, but this opportunity to invite them to come to church gives them the opportunity to hear the word. As a Christian man, I’ve done my job by at least giving them the open invitation.

It is illegal for school administrators and coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with their students, including team visits to a church for a religious sermon, FFRF points out. School officials may not use their position as public school employees to give religious leaders unique access to students.

“It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the school district’s legal counsel. “Courts have consistently held that it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead religious activities, including at public high school athletic events. Organization of and/or participation in a team visit to a church for a religious sermon are also clearly prohibited.”

The promotion of religious views by school staff turns any nonbelieving and non-Christian students into outsiders at their own school, FFRF emphasizes. This is especially problematic in the context of athletics, given the pressure players feel to conform to coaches’ expectations so as to not lose favor with the coaches or hurt their playing time.

And the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against school-sponsored religious exercise cannot be overcome by claiming that such activities are “voluntary.” As the Supreme Court said in Engel v. Vitale (1962), “Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause.” It also makes no difference if the school requires parents to opt-in to religious practices.

“The combination of football and religion in public schools is insidious and discriminatory,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “A public school system can’t be permitted to continue playing a role in this devotional event.”

FFRF is requesting that the district immediately investigate and take action to ensure that school administrators and coaches not organize or participate in such events.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,500 members in Florida and the Central Florida Freethought Community. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The photo has been blurred to protect the student's privacy.

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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