FFRF removes religious ‘character coach’ from Iowa high school basketball program

logo for Urbandale Community School District

After the Freedom From Religion Foundation called foul, the Urbandale Community School District will ensure its basketball program stays free from religious entanglement.

The state/church watchdog received a report that an adult representative of the Central Iowa chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had been inappropriately involved in Urbandale High School’s basketball program. The adult representative served as a “character coach” for the boys’ basketball program at the high school, which was confirmed by a post from the local fellowship chapter on social media. On Jan. 7, members of the team met with the representative for a “pregame chapel.” The representative did not appear to be employed by the school district in any capacity.

“Schools cannot constitutionally allow religious organizations to treat schools as a recruiting ground for their religious mission,” FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence wrote to the district.

Student athletes are especially susceptible to coercion, FFRF emphasized. When their school’s athletic program allows an adult representative of a religious organization to lead student athletes in a “pregame chapel,” the students undoubtedly feel that participating in that religious activity is essential to pleasing their team’s coach and being viewed as a team player. It is unrealistic and unconstitutional to give student athletes an ultimatum of allowing their constitutional rights to be violated in order to maintain good standing in the eyes of their coach and peers or openly dissenting at the risk of retaliation from their coach and teammates. Putting student athletes in that position is not only unfair, but also violates their First Amendment rights.

FFRF urged the district not to allow an outside representative to coerce students into religious worship at the cost of their First Amendment rights.

The district’s legal counsel responded to FFRF’s missive, writing, “As a result of your letter and the allegations set forth, the district has taken steps to ensure if athletic teams hold chapels or other prayer events, those will be entirely student-led or student-initiated and district employees will not participate. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes group has also been informed that any non-school personnel may direct, lead or regularly attend such events.” The district additionally made it clear that the representative from the Central Iowa fellowship chapter would not be permitted to be represented as a “character coach” for the Urbandale basketball program or any other district venture, including on social media.

FFRF is appreciative of the swift action by the district.

“No sports team has ever been propelled to victory thanks to the blessing of any god,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “And no students ever should be expected to pray to play. The district made a good call by keeping this from happening in the future.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog organization that has 40,000 members nationwide, including hundreds of members in Iowa. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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