Halt coach-student praying, FFRF tells Tenn. district

Cumberland

Stop football coaches from praying with their students, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting to a Tennessee school district.

The football coaching staff at Stone Memorial High School, in the Cumberland County School District, joined a public prayer with students after a football game against Christian Academy of Knoxville in mid-September. Several coaches bowed their heads and held the shoulders of the players.

It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to organize or participate in prayer with their teams, FFRF stresses to the district.

“Federal courts have specifically held public school coaches’ participation in their team’s prayer circles unconstitutional,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the district’s legal counsel. “In each of these cases, federal courts struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes a government advancement and endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers or organizing a student-led prayer, FFRF adds. In Duncanville Independent School District, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that coach involvement in prayer at practices and games is unconstitutional. The court also rejected the district’s argument that prohibiting a coach from praying with students would violate the coach’s right to free speech.

And importantly, the district is home to a diverse array of families, including parents and students who are non-Christian and nonreligious. In fact, non-Christian Americans make up over one-third of Americans, including the more than one in four Americans who now identify as religiously unaffiliated — the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification. The district has an obligation to make its sponsored activities nondiscriminatory and welcoming for all of its students, not just those in the Christian majority.

“Football coaches praying with their students is an archaic practice that sends an exclusionary message,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Students should not have to pray to play.”

FFRF is requesting that Cumberland County School District commence an investigation into the complaint and take immediate action to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring within any district athletic programs.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 400 members and a chapter in Tennessee. Its 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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