Victory! FFRF stops Iowa school officials from promoting religious student club

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has ensured that employees of Iowa’s Hinton Community School District will no longer continue to violate constitutional law by taking part in an overtly religious club for student athletes.

FFRF received a report that a district employee was active in and directed the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) — a religious student club. Multiple posts on the superintendent’s personal Facebook and Twitter accounts confirmed this, including an Oct. 13, 2023, post thanking a coach for working with the club. On March 16, the superintendent also promoted “Huddle Up Time,” where “Hinton FCA meets at 7:30 a.m. on Fridays every couple of weeks,” and thanked the coach for sponsoring the event and for “influence and leadership.”

FFRF mobilized to protect the rights of students.

“It is well settled that public schools — including their employees — may not show favoritism towards or coerce belief or participation in religion,” FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Hirsh M. Joshi wrote to the superintendent.

Based on a federal law upheld by a Supreme Court decision, public school employees may not lead student religious groups, FFRF emphasized. Student religious clubs must be entirely student-initiated and student-led and take place outside of school hours. In the case of the Hinton Community School District, however, a coach was actively leading students in a club’s religious activities. This sent an impermissible message of preference for Christianity by the coach, who may not use his position to promote religion. FFRF pointed out that this also risked alienating or excluding the nearly 49 percent of Generation Z who are nonreligious.

After FFRF’s letter, the Hinton Community School District took action.

The school system’s legal counsel recently clarified that the coach leading the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting has retired, but “the district will advise all school employees that their presence at such meetings must be only in a nonparticipatory capacity.” Additionally, the district will take steps to ensure that social media accounts held by district employees are not used to post messages that could be perceived by students as a sponsorship of a particular religion.

FFRF is pleased that the religious student club will remain free from religious interference by public school staff.

“Keeping the school image from being tainted with religious sectarianism helps create a more welcoming environment for all students, regardless of their religion,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor says. “Students should not feel as though coaches — much less their superintendent — are lending school support to students of one particular religion.”

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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