A proselytizing coach should be reined in and, if need be, removed, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging a Florida school district.
A concerned area resident has reported to the state/church watchdog concerns about religious promotion taking place in the Lake Minneola baseball program. A recently published article in the local newspaper reveals that Coach Kerry Whetro, an ordained minister, has been promoting religion through his position. Whetro “allows for time before and after every practice and game so his players can pray ... He and Paula [his wife], in fact, pray with them,” the piece reports. Whetro explains: “God has blessed us to be around kids and share the gospel. If someone wants my job bad enough and I get fired because of that, that’s OK. God will protect us and find us somewhere else to go.” He continues, “These kids appreciate us allowing this to happen. We pray before games, after games, we have devotionals, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes come around. It’s gotten to the point now where if we don’t pray after a game or practice, the kids ask, ‘Hey coach, why aren’t we praying?’ It shows we’ve accomplished our goal.”
Such conduct is unconstitutional, FFRF emphasizes.
“It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to promote and endorse religion or lead their teams in prayer,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Lake County Schools Superintendent Diane Kornegay. “The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools.”
Coach Whetro’s conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee, FFRF asserts. He represents the school and the team when he acts in his official role as head coach of the Lake Minneola High School baseball team. Therefore, he cannot use his position to instill religion in his players or lead his team in prayer and he cannot organize or advocate for students to lead team prayer either. Worse, based on his statements he is intentionally abusing his position to evangelize other people’s children in violation of the Constitution.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Borden (2009) 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.
Plus, Lake County Schools is home to a diverse array of families, including parents and students who are non-Christian and nonreligious. Nonreligious Americans make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification — 35 percent of Americans are non-Christians, and this includes the more than one in four Americans who now identify as religiously unaffiliated. 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.
That’s why FFRF is asking the school district to commence an investigation and take immediate action to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring within the district’s athletic programs. And if Whetro continues to use his public school position to proselytize students, he should be removed from that position, FFRF advises.
“The coach’s outrageous conduct is a major league offense against freedom of conscience,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “He’s not just a little off base, he’s out of left field to be proselytizing a captive audience of student athletes.”
FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with over 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 1,800 members and a chapter, Central Florida Freethought Community, in the Sunshine State. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.