FFRF calls out Tenn. school district for unconstitutional reading assignment

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging a Tennessee school district to rein in a soccer coach attempting to proselytize student athletes via a religious reading assignment.

A concerned parent informed the state/church watchdog that the boy’s soccer team coach at Hendersonville High School (Gallatin, Tenn.) assigned a book with a pervasively sectarian message to the team late last year, saying: “Every player is expected to have a copy by January 9th. If you have any questions please let me know.” The complainant reported that the coach wanted the team to read the book together.

“Student athletes are especially susceptible to coercion,” FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Hirsh M. Joshi wrote to Superintendent Scott Langford. “Religious assignments for student athletes place them in a difficult position: They must either go along with their coach’s religious preferences—likely against their own conscience—or openly dissent at risk of their team standing.” It is improper and unacceptable for a public school coach to impose his personal religious beliefs onto students in this manner.

The book in question, Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success by Coach John Wooden and Jay Carthy, contains frequent references to religion and faith. Particularly, Wooden’s Christian viewpoints are stressed as a factor leading to success. One Google Books’s preview features the word “bible” roughly 30 times, the word “God” 70 times, and the word “lord” roughly 20 times. Every chapter concludes with a prayer. Cumulatively, the 160-page book contains hundreds of references to Christianity. Particularly concerning is a quote in which the authors justify law-breaking in the name of Jesus:

Just to survive, Christians will be tempted to be dishonest about their faith. Peter faced a similar quandary. The Pharisees didn’t like his preaching and threatened to throw him in jail if he didn’t shut up. He told them no and kept preaching. Why did Peter violate existing law? For the greater good of all, he had to conform to the higher laws of God. We can call this a just cause…Peter broke the law for a just cause and went to jail. At some point, each of us may need to make a similar just-cause decision. There are powerful forces attempting to remove God from the fabric of our society. The day may come when we must decide whether we will follow a law of the land or the Law of God. Our honesty may be tested.

The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause requires government neutrality between religions, and between religion and nonreligion. It is uncontroversial for a coach to assign a book to build camaraderie, but this assignment did the opposite: It sowed division between those who agree with the book—Christians who share Coach Wooden’s “old school” views on religion—and those who do not. A student who does not share the Christian beliefs mentioned in Wooden’s Pyramid of Success faces a dilemma: Leave the team or betray their conscience.

“Like any public school employee, the coach’s actions must be consistent with the First Amendment. While Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success comes short of assigning the bible itself, the biblical references coupled with the external citations transmogrifies the simple book club into something more— a bible study,” writes Joshi. Promoting religious viewpoints through the school’s extra curricular activities needlessly alienates students and families who are not Christian, including those who are nonreligious. At least a third of Generation Z (those born after 1996) have no religion, with a recent survey revealing almost half of Gen Z qualify as religiously unaffiliated “nones.”

FFRF brings attention to a compelling point from Wooden himself:

I served as a basketball coach at a public institution; therefore, I didn’t talk about my faith. I never felt it was appropriate. I always had a bible on my desk and I intentionally led by example, based on Christ’s teaching; but I wasn’t vocal about my beliefs. I just attempted to demonstrate them by the way I live my life…[F]aith in God wasn’t a part of my curriculum, so I didn’t preach. I’m not a minister in that sense. I was a basketball coach who was charged with producing good men and graduates who also played basketball…I never tried to change someone’s faith. I saw that as God’s job, not mine.

FFRF is urging the district to instruct all staff and faculty to refrain from proselytizing, including assigning books containing religious messages.

“This extracurricular assignment is extremely offensive in multiple ways, including using faith as a justification for breaking the law,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Students need to know that they do not need to pray to play at Sumner County Schools.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation serves as the nation’s largest association of freethinkers, with 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including almost 500 members and a chapter in Tennessee, and works as a state/church watchdog to safeguard the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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