FFRF urges Va. school district to rein in prayerful lacrosse coach

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting that Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia stop a high school lacrosse coach from coercing student athletes into prayer.

A concerned district community member informed the state/church watchdog that the head lacrosse coach at Matoaca High School has been directing and encouraging students to pray after games, including players from opposing teams. The coach has reportedly been heard asking students to gather around in prayer before directing a student to lead the prayer. On May 9, the coach even posted a photo of one of the prayers on his personal Facebook page.

“[The coach] has clearly crossed the constitutional line by directing and encouraging student athletes to engage in prayer while acting in his official capacity as a district employee,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the district’s legal counsel.

Student athletes have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination when participating in their public school’s athletics program, FFRF points out. The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools, even if the prayer is led by a student. Coaches cannot circumvent the Constitution by encouraging a student to lead the prayer and pretending that it is student-initiated.

And student athletes are especially susceptible to coercion, FFRF emphasizes. Students know that their coaches control their playing time and positions, directly affecting students’ opportunities for college scholarships and recruitment. When a coach directs students to participate in a prayer, the student athletes will no doubt feel that participating in that prayer is essential to pleasing their coach and being viewed as a team player. It is unrealistic and unconstitutional to put before student athletes the choice 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. In this situation, this is particularly troubling for parents and students who are not Christians or do not subscribe to any religion. Nearly half of Generation Z is nonreligious, which likely represents a significant number of students in the district.

FFRF is asking the school district to investigate the matter and take immediate action.

“Students need to know that they do not need to pray to play at Chesterfield County Public Schools,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor says. “This coach needs to quit abusing his authority in order to promote his personal religious views to what is essentially a captive audience of students.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country, including more than 900 members in Virginia. Our 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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