FFRF contests Georgia high school prayers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a complaint with the Douglas County School System about a Baptist church’s entanglement with the football program at Alexander High School in Douglasville, Ga.

A district resident concerned about the situation contacted FFRF, a national state-church watchdog with more than 20,000 members and about 375 in Georgia.

In a May 27 letter to Superintendent Gordon Pritz, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel said FFRF understands that Friday pregame meals are “sponsored” by a local church, Pray’s Mill Baptist, and that Ric Blazi, the church’s pastor of student ministry, according to its website, gives what the complainant describes as a “pseudo-sermon” at the end of the meal before asking everyone to bow their heads and pray.

“Our complainant reports that there are nonbeliever athletes who are uncomfortable with this practice, but cannot decline to participate or leave because they risk banishment from the team,” Seidel said. “We also understand that Mr. Blazi is present at most practices and games.”

It’s illegal for a public school to invite a pastor to lead a team in prayer. The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal, school-led prayer in public schools, FFRF noted, and cited specific cases going back as far as 1962.

Seidel reminded Pritz of a 1989 decision by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Jager v. Douglas County Sch. Dist. that barred the district from inviting ministers, and later, randomly selected students, parents and school staff, to deliver invocations over the loudspeaker before football games.

“Federal courts are very protective of upholding their orders, and defying that order, as the district does in this instance, could easily constitute contempt of court,” Seidel warned.

FFRF named the Jager family its Freethinkers of the Year in 1989 for challenging the prayers. Doug Jager, as a member of the marching band, was harassed in 1984 for not participating in the prayers. The case went public during the 1986-87 school year. His parents, Bill and Sue, were extremely supportive, and are still FFRF members.

The district unsuccessfully argued in Jager that the invocations were constitutional because they took place at events where attendance was voluntary. The court dismissed the argument, saying, “This argument lacks merit because whether the complaining individual’s presence was voluntary is not relevant to the Establishment Clause analysis. . . . The Establishment Clause focuses on the constitutionality of the state action, not on the choices made by the complaining individual.”

Seidel continued, “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for Alexander High School to offer a Christian minister unique access to befriend and proselytize student athletes. Public high school athletic teams cannot seek out a spiritual leader for the team and allow that person to sermonize and pray with students, because public schools may not advance or promote religion. Mr. Blazi’s religious messages are clearly offered as part of regularly scheduled school-sponsored functions.”

FFRF asked the district to stop the prayers and the serious constitutional violation and comply with the Establishment Clause and the 11th Circuit’s decision.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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