Illinois school district to stop coach-led prayers

A northern Illinois school district agreed to stop allowing a high school football coach from leading prayers with players at games after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint.

A concerned local resident complained to FFRF that Naperville Central High School head football coach Mark Stine prayed with students during games, a clear constitutional violation.

On Dec. 8, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent a letter to Naperville Superintendent Dan Bridges.

“Coach Stine’s conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee,” Jayne wrote. “Certainly he represents the school and the team when he acts in his official role as head coach of the Redhawks.”

On Dec. 10, Bridges responded to FFRF and agreed that coaches should not lead prayers.

“Naperville Community Unit School District 203 is aware that a coach led prayer is not appropriate,” he wrote. “The head football coach has been instructed that neither he nor his staff may lead his players in prayer.”

However, in the statement, it was unclear if Bridges understood that FFRF was requesting that the coach no longer participate at all in the prayer or whether he just meant that the coach could no longer lead the prayers. So FFRF sent another letter to Bridges that day clarifying that the coach should not be involved at all in the prayers.

“It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of students,” Jayne wrote. “Students are welcome to pray on their own, but school representatives must not participate.”

Bridges has not yet responded to that most recent letter.

Some media outlets have misconstrued what Bridges decided and they implied that even the students could not pray before or after games. Students have the right to pray on their own, but FFRF contends the coach (traditionally standing beside them for a pre-game prayer) has “groomed” students to engage in worship as an official part of a school activity.

After hearing of the change of not allowing the coach to lead prayer, the football players put together a letter of support for the coach. “We, as a football team and a family, give Coach Stine our full support,” the letter reads. “He is the best coach in the state and cares about each and every one of us more than any other coach cares about his players. We are proud that he is willing to stand up for his faith and for the example he sets for us.”

FFRF issued a statement after the team misguidedly praised Stine as “willing to stand up for his faith.” A public school coach should pray or promote religion on his own time and dime, and shouldn’t misuse his authority to promote his personal religious views upon public school athletes, FFRF added.

“Public schools exist to educate, not indoctrinate,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote. “This ‘tradition’ is illegal, coercive and divisive. FFRF fully supports a student’s right to their own personal religious beliefs, and to pray on their own. We are confident a coach who cares about every student on the team will understand why it crosses the line to pray with students.”

FFRF is a national nonprofit with nearly 23,000 members, including more than 700 in Illinois and a local chapter, FFRF Metropolitan Chicago.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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