Immediately halt the proselytizing activities of a local high school’s football coach, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting to a North Carolina school district.
A concerned Swain County Schools community member has informed the state/church watchdog that Sherman Holt, the new head football coach of Swain High School in Bryson City, N.C., has been using his position to proselytize, promote his religion to players and to coerce students into participating in religious rituals. Holt has reportedly stated his desire to see his players “become followers of Christ,” organized an official team trip to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp, and has brought in a “team chaplain” who he allows to proselytize to players at each team practice.
A post on Holt’s personal Twitter account confirms that he took students to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp where the team, he claims, “grew spiritually, physically and mentally.” He explains that 16 of the players “gave thier[sic] heart to Jesus as their Lord and Savior,” which was “just what our team needed.” Holt is currently holding a football camp for players that not only includes daily church services during dinner, but even a baptism for players that recently took place on the team’s football field.
It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer or instruct others to lead team prayer, FFRF reminds the school district.
“It is unconstitutional for public school employees to direct students to partake in religious activities, including church services and baptism, or to even participate in the religious activities of their students,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Swain County Schools Superintendent Mark Sale. “The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a coach’s attempts to engage in religious activities with players at team events were unconstitutional because the religious promotion took place ‘during school-controlled, curriculum-related activities that members of the [athletic] team are required to attend. During these activities [district] coaches and other school employees are present as representatives of the school and their actions are representative of [district] policies.’”
The Supreme Court did recently rule in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a high school football coach's silent, private post-game prayer was constitutional, but throughout its opinion it repeatedly stressed that the coach silently prayed alone. Here, rather than praying privately after games, Coach Holt has transformed his football program into a religious ministry, including a “team chaplain,” religious team events, team church services, and team baptisms on school property. The religious coercion occurring within the district’s football program is particularly troubling for those parents and students who are not Christians or do not subscribe to any religion, FFRF stresses.
That’s why FFRF is urging that the district investigate this matter and take immediate action to protect its students. Coach Holt must be directed to cease including coercive religious activities and practices in the football program, and the district should consider reprimanding him for his egregious conduct.
“Coaches cannot be permitted to engage in such blatantly sectarian religious behavior,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s highly discriminatory toward all those members of the school district who don’t share that particular belief system.”
Please read the full FFRF letter to the school district here.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 37,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 800 members and a local chapter in North Carolina. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.