The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling attention to Indiana public high school football coaches praying with students, violating their First Amendment rights in the process.
A concerned community member in the South Gibson School Corporation contacted FFRF to report that high school personnel prayed with student athletes following a football game at Gibson Southern High School. A photograph posted on social media shows coaching staff for both teams, as well as other adults, bowing their heads in prayer and placing their hands on students, along with the caption, “This is how two of the best football programs in southern Indiana complete a game … the power of prayer — at Gibson County, Indiana.”
It is well-established law that public school coaches may not lead their teams in prayers, participate in student-led prayers, or otherwise promote religion to students, FFRF reminds the district. The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes a government endorsement of religion.
“The coaches’ conduct in the enclosed photograph is unconstitutional because they endorse and promote religion when acting in their official capacity as school district representatives,” writes FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne. “When public school employees acting in their official capacities organize and advocate for team prayer, they effectively endorse religion on the District’s behalf.”
Last year, FFRF wrote to the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation regarding a very similar complaint. Despite a local law professor confirming that public school coaches may not pray with their students at school events, the school district repeatedly prevaricated to avoid admitting that it had violated students’ rights, and another area superintendent even admitted to leading students in prayers himself as a public school coach.
“Public schools in the Evansville area appear to be troublingly indifferent to their staff using their position as coaches to promote their personal religion to District students,” commented FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We hope that the South Gibson School Corporation will set a better example by acknowledging its students’ right to a secular public school system.”
FFRF is requesting that the district commence an immediate investigation and take steps to ensure that in the future Gibson Southern High School coaches will not pray with students during district athletic programs in the future.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members across the country, including over 400 members in Indiana. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.