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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

October 7-9, 2016

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Lauryn Seering

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An Oklahoma public high school football coach has been re-educated after the Freedom From Religion Foundation alerted the school district to his team's attendance at a sermon.

The football team at Edmond Santa Fe High School (in Edmond, Okla.) held a religious event at a local church. Chris Beall, the campus pastor at the church, wrote on Facebook: "This morning we have the honor of leading the entire Santa Fe football team and coaching staff ... discovering God's unique purpose for their lives? Can you think of a better way to start the season? Unbelievable! Coach [Kyle] White you are a world changer!"

It is illegal for coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with their students, including team visits to a church for a religious sermon, FFRF pointed out. Coaches may not use their position as public school employees to give religious leaders unique access to students.

"Public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Edmond Public Schools Superintendent Bret Towne. "Courts have consistently held that it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead religious activities, including at public high school athletic events."

The coach's role in the case of the Edmond Santa Fe High School football team made it especially problematic.

"Federal courts have specifically held public school coaches' participation in their team's religious activities unconstitutional," FFRF emphasized. "Organization of and/or participation in a team visit to a church for a religious sermon are also clearly prohibited."

And, FFRF added, "The Constitution's prohibition against school-sponsored religious exercise cannot be overcome by claiming such activities are 'voluntary.'"

FFRF's missive spurred the Edmond Public Schools district to take action.

"While meeting with Coach White, administrators instructed Coach White on why there must be a separation of school and church activities so as not to advance or promote religion," Towne recently responded. "The district feels that after visiting with Coach White, he understands the boundaries and separation that must be maintained in instances such as what occurred...the administration of the district and Santa Fe High School will work to see that a situation such as this does not occur in the future."

In addition to informing White that he may not take student-athletes to church, district administrators also made sure that he understood he could not pray with students in the locker room or on the field.

FFRF is happy that it propelled the district in the right direction.

"Public school coaches need to have a clear conception of what is constitutionally permissible," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're glad that we provided the impetus for a 'teachable moment.'"

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheistic organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 25,000 members all over the country, including many in Oklahoma.

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In spite of — or perhaps due to — its religiosity, the Clemson football program is in trouble as it gears up for the national championship Monday night.

Many people are questioning Head Coach Dabo Swinney's ability to teach his students character after reports of racial slurs and videos of Clemson players grabbing their opponents' genitals.

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Under Swinney, the football program at Clemson, a prominent public university in South Carolina, is overtly religious. The team has had a Christian chaplain. Players have been baptized in team facilities. And, as part of an annual "church day" event, the entire team and coaching staff attend a religious service.

Swinney uses his position of considerable power to impose his personal religion on players, often under the guise of character education. FFRF has long opposed these measures and has worked to protect the rights of students who cannot speak up without jeopardizing their position on the team.

With religion imposed from the top down, observers might expect the players to behave like altar boys and be upstanding citizens. So why are Clemson players clutching their opponents' genitals and hurling racial epithets? Because religion does not equate to morality or build moral character.

Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins went out of his way to grab an opposing player's groin in a game last Saturday against Ohio State.

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Watch the clip here:

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Later, another player, linebacker Ben Boulware, said, "That's something we've done all year just to mess with players." Boulware did say that he and his teammates normally try to be "more discreet about it." 

Swinney shrugged off the genital grabbing as "goofy" and "silly."

Sports Illustrated reports that in late November, players from the University of South Carolina, which has its own problems with imposing religion on players, accused Clemson players of using the N-word: "Multiple South Carolina players say Clemson players called them racial slurs during Saturday's game, something Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said was 'absolutely false.'"

South Carolina wide receiver Terry Googer, who appeared upset after the game, tweeted: "Never thought I would hear so many racial slurs in my life!! Classless is not a strong enough word to describe the actions!" 

All of this indicates a deep problem in the Clemson football program.

"Dabo Swinney's insistence on using Clemson to promote his personal religion is clearly not teaching these students how to behave morally," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, author of a recent book pointing out all the immorality in the bible, "God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction."

It also reveals the dubiousness of equating religiosity with morality.

"This just proves that piety is no predictor of moral behavior," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "If anything, religion gives people a license to commit immoral acts in the name of their god."

For more on the impact of coach-imposed religion on the rights of student athletes, see FFRF's comprehensive "Pray to Play" report. 

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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