Va. public school soccer coaching staff committing foul, FFRF charges

Tazewell

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pulling out a penalty card on Virginia public school soccer coaching personnel who ostentatiously prayed at a recent game.

Coaching staff for the Graham High School soccer team led students in prayer before a game on June 10, a concerned area resident informed the state/church watchdog.

It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer, since the Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools, FFRF informs Tazewell County Public Schools.

“Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Superintendent Christopher Stacy. “It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students. Federal courts have held that even a public school coach’s silent participation in student prayer circles is unconstitutional.”

In Borden (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 because it violated the Establishment Clause. 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 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.

The conduct of the soccer team’s coaching personnel is unconstitutional because they endorse and promote religion when acting in their official capacity as school district employees, FFRF points out. They represent the school and the team when acting in their official role as coaches of the Graham High School soccer team. Therefore, they cannot use their position to instill religion in players or lead their team in prayer, and they cannot organize or advocate for students to lead team prayer either.

And Tazewell County Public 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.

Tazewell County Public Schools has an obligation to make its sponsored activities nondiscriminatory and welcoming for all of its students, not just those in the religious majority, FFRF emphasizes. That’s why it is asking that the 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.

“Public school coaches who make a show of praying at matches are engaging in constitutionally unsporting behavior,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “District officials need to clearly indicate to them the rules for behavior on the soccer field.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members across the country, including nearly 900 members in Virginia. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Photo has been modified to protect the students identity.

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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