A Coweta County football coach has been ordered to stop praying with his team before, during or after a game following a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
A video from an attendee at a recent football game shows East Coweta High School football coach John Small bowing his head and touching football players’ shoulders during a prayer, according to a news release from FFRF.
FFRF is a Wisconsin-based non-profit that works to “protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism,” according to its website.
The organization wrote a letter to Coweta School Superintendent Steve Barker Oct. 25 stating the act was an “advancement and endorsement of religion” by the district since Small is an employee. The act of a coach leading or participating in prayer with players violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from making any actions favoring one religion over another.
A coach leading prayer could also make players who are not religious or of another religion feel ostracized.
“They may realize the coach likes the prayer and he wants the prayer to take place, so I’m going to single myself out if I choose not to participate,” FFRF member Chris Line told Fox 5.
The letter asked for the district to take immediate action to cease any public prayer led by a school district employee.
Barker asked for guidance from school board attorney Nathan Lee, who said in a memo district employees should play no role in endorsing religion. They should only provide a “supervisory or custodial role,” according to the Newnan Times-Herald.
“Representatives of the school cannot participate in any student-initiated or student-led prayer or other worship while acting in their official capacity,” Lee’s memo stated. “For instance, they cannot join hands, bow their heads, take a knee or commit another act that otherwise manifests approval with the students’ religious experience.”
The memo was distributed to all school principals. Barker also met with coaches from the three public schools in his district to discuss the specifics of religious activity and school events, according to FFRF.
It was later determined a volunteer “community coach” was the one actually leading prayer at the game involved in the complaint, Dean Jackson, public information officer for the school system, told the Times-Herald. However, community coaches still represent the school even though they don’t receive a paycheck from the district.
Small told the Times-Herald he will continue to support his students and follow the laws in place regarding prayer by school employees.
“I knew this was an amazing community here in Coweta County when I got here, but what's amazing is this situation has made this community even stronger and better,” Small said. “...We understand there are laws in place and we follow them to the best of our knowledge. Are we perfect? No, but no one is and we are always learning and trying to be better each day.”
On Friday night, East Coweta played against Newnan High School. Players did their usual prayer before the game, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with heads bowed. No coaches were present, Fox 5 reported.
FRFF recently issued a similar letter to Lee County Schools Superintendent James McCoy following a complaint about Smith’s Station High School.
Smith’s Station has a routine of reciting the Lord’s Prayer over the stadium’s loudspeaker before each game, but had to cease doing do after a complaint was sent to FRFF, as previously reported by the Ledger-Enquirer.
Before a September game against Central High School, attendees in both student sections got around the rule by reciting the Lord’s Prayer out loud from their seats.