Ga. school district stops religiously coercing students after FFRF intervenes


A Georgia school district will not continue religiously pressuring its high school football team after the Freedom From Religion Foundation interceded.

FFRF had contacted Toombs County Schools in October after a resident informed it that coaches and an outside pastor were praying with the high school football team and that religious propaganda was being posted on official social media. A video posted on Facebook showed coaches making religious statements and initiating a religious chant with students after the game. In the video, each coach made a statement before reciting the phrase, “God is good,” to which the students responded: “All the time.” Each coach then said, “All the time,” and the students responded: “God is good.” This was repeated a dozen times. A coach told students to “know who you are and know He’s given you purpose” while pointing to the sky. After each of the coaches repeated this religious chant, one of the coaches said, “Pastor Toole, pray us out.” Pastor Steven Toole then led the team in an elaborate prayer that included the following language: “God, I thank you that I see wins every day. And God, as you work in them and you show them purpose in their lives beyond … so that you receive all glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.” Toole is apparently a local pastor who the school has employed to pray with and promote religion to the team.

FFRF reminded the school district that such conduct was blatantly breaching the U.S. Constitution.

“The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Toombs County Schools Superintendent Barry Waller . “It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students. Federal courts have held that even a public school coach’s silent participation in student prayer circles is unconstitutional.”

The district’s practices were problematic on other fronts, too. Its hiring of a chaplain violated the Constitution. And its football program regularly posted religious messages and bible verses on its official Twitter account, another unlawful and disturbing habit. Both of the district’s moves also conflicted with the personal religious and nonreligious views of many district students and families, including the 38 percent of Americans born after 1987 who identify as nonreligious, FFRF reminded officials. 

The state/church watchdog’s note has persuaded the school district to mend its ways.

“It was agreed that staff of the Toombs County School System should not be participating in any form of religious activity with students, on school property, and, likewise, should not be posting any form of religious statements on school-related social media,” the school’s legal counsel recently wrote back. “School staff and coaches have been directed not to lead or organize any religious activity with students on any school property or at any school event.”

FFRF welcomes the realization of Toombs County Schools that it was engaged in constitutionally inappropriate behavior.

“The gall of school officials to allow such activities was breathtaking,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “High school kids should never be religiously strong-armed, and so we’re glad that the district has promised to put a stop to such occurrences.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 31,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 500 members and a chapter in Georgia. 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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