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FFRF throws penalty flag on prayerful Indiana public school coach

Michigan City

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling a constitutional penalty on an Indiana football coach who has ostentatiously prayed after games.

A Facebook post with a post-game video after the Michigan City High School football team won the regional championship shows that Coach Phil D. Mason initiated a team prayer, stating “we really need to thank Him, OK.” He participated in the prayer with the team with head bowed and hand on shoulder of a player. (FFRF wishes to thank an area resident for alerting it to the incident.)

Public schools cannot endorse or promote religion, FFRF reminds Michigan City Area Schools.

“The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools because it violates the Establishment Clause’s requirement of church-state separation,” FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman writes to Superintendent Barbara Eason-Watkins. “A football coach is a state actor and he violates his, and the school’s, constitutional obligation to religious neutrality when engaging in prayer with the team.”

Other courts have handed down decisions in line with the highest court in the land. In Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick (2008), the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the high school football coach’s extensive history of organizing, leading and participating in prayers before games violated the Establishment Clause. 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.

As importantly, the Michigan City Area School District is home to diverse religious beliefs, including students and families who are non-Christian and nonreligious, FFRF points out. Nonreligious Americans make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification — 35 percent of Americans are non-Christians, including more than one in four Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Coach Mason’s conduct is unconstitutional, FFRF emphasizes. He endorses and promotes religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee. He cannot participate in a team prayer, let alone initiate the prayer.

“The coach is committing a serious foul by engaging in such overtly proselytizing behavior,” remarks FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The school district needs to rein him in immediately. Public school students should not be expected to pray to play.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters all over the country, including hundreds of members and a chapter in Indiana. Our 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 blurred to protect the students' privacy.

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