Offside and out of bounds: the Supreme Court struck down coercive forms of public school prayer 54 years ago, but some coaches are playing by their own rules.

Frank McIntire wasn’t looking to hear religious sermons when
he attended football games at Haralson County High School in Georgia.
But that is exactly what he experienced for six season’s worth of
Friday nights–courtesy of clergy-led prayers that echoed from the
stadium loudspeaker.

“[My wife Sarah and I] felt it was going a little too
far,” McIntire told Church & State in 2012. “When the
preacher said things like, ‘Thank you, Lord, for sending Jesus down
to die for our sins,’ now it’s a sermon. I believe people have
the right to pray but there are guidelines under the law.” For more
than 50 years, Haralson High home football games began with official
invocations, and for at least 15 years an official team chaplain led
students in pregame prayer in addition to praying over the loudspeaker.
Those facts didn’t sit well with McIntire, whose son, Scott, was a
member of the football team.

Initially McIntire tried to resolve these clear constitutional
violations without the help of attorneys, but when that proved
impossible, he turned to Americans United and its allies.

Thanks to complaints from AU and another group, Haralson
High’s decades-long prayer practice came to an end in September
2012. Although Americans United earned a victory in that case four years
ago, the group continues to receive a regular stream of complaints of
instances in which religion permeates public-school athletic programs.

The Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored, coercive forms of
prayer in public schools 54 years ago. There’s no exception for
coaches, but some of them simply aren’t following these rulings.

To give some idea of how common this problem is, in a space of just
five weeks in April and May of this year, Americans United sent
complaints to six different public high schools and colleges regarding
prayers at football games.

Many of those complaints involved prayers being recited over
loudspeakers before contests, a puzzling development given the Supreme
Court’s long line of rulings against this type of activity. As a
result, few schools would dare attempt such brazen coercive prayer
during the school day in 2016. And yet, it seems this clear-cut legal
precedent gets tossed aside in the context of sports.

Since football is like a religion in some areas of the United
States, it’s probably not surprising that actual religion is a part
of many football contests. In fact, one of the Religious Right’s
favorite martyrs is a former high school assistant coach who lost his
job because he refused to separate faith and football.

Joe Kennedy, a then-assistant coach at Bremerton High School in
Washington, was placed on administrative leave in November 2015 after he
refused to stop praying with players from both teams on the 50-yard line
at the end of school football games. These midfield prayer sessions
began in 2008 but didn’t make headlines until September of 2015,
when school Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote Kennedy a letter
explaining that the coach engaged in two “problematic
practices”: pregame prayer and postgame “inspirational
talks.”

Leavell informed Kennedy that he was willing to provide Kennedy
with a private prayer location “not observable to students or the
public” as long as the coach’s future “talks with
students … [do] not include religious expression, including
prayer.”

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Kennedy agreed–at first. But after his story became public, it
attracted the attention of the Religious Right, and attorneys at the
Texas-based First Liberty Institute may have persuaded Kennedy to go
back to his old ways after a few weeks of abiding by school rules. On
Oct. 16, 2015, Kennedy returned to mid-field after a game and took a
knee for a prayer. He was suspended soon after and later filed a
lawsuit.

Kennedy sought a preliminary injunction ordering the school
district to hire him as a coach and to allow him to pray with players.
In September, however, U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton denied
that order. Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United, said
in a media statement that the court made the right call in the case of
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

“The law in this area has been settled for a long time,”
Katskee said. “Kennedy wants to pray with students, but that’s
a clear violation of parental rights. Parents get to decide what
religion, if any, their children are exposed to, and no public school
official may interfere in that relationship.”

Liberty Institute argues that Kennedy didn’t do anything wrong
because he simply prayed on his own and students joined him of their own
accord. Therefore, Liberty claimed, there was no coercion on the part of
a public school official. In fact, a Supreme Court ruling from 2000,
Santa Fe, Independent School District v. Doe, essentially rejects that
argument. In the 6-3 ruling, the high court said the Santa Fe, Texas,
Independent School District’s policy of letting students vote
whether or not to have non-sectarian prayers before football games, then
allowing students to lead those prayers, was unconstitutional.

Liberty Institute’s argument has failed in the past. In 2008,
Katskee litigated a very similar case in New Jersey, where a football
coach named Marcus Borden at East Brunswick High School insisted he had
a right to pray with players. Not everyone wanted to take part, and
players who objected were told to wait in the locker room.

Americans United represented the school district in the Borden v.
School District of the Township of East Brunswick case and won. A
federal appeals court ruled that Borden’s actions crossed the line.

Nonetheless, Kennedy’s lawsuit continues to generate
attention, and he is quickly becoming another Religious Right martyr.
Kennedy spoke during the Family Research Council’s Values Voter
Summit in September, and during an October campaign rally that Kennedy
attended, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump sided with the
football coach.

“[What happened to you was] absolutely outrageous,” Trump
said. “I think it’s outrageous. I think it’s very, very
sad and outrageous.”

When it comes to college football, where programs sometimes
generate millions of dollars in revenue for their schools, teams often
have free rein to operate.

This sometimes means teams are unchecked when they engage in
coercive prayers. Earlier this year, for example, Americans United sent
a complaint to a public university in the Deep South because its
football team sponsored pre-game prayers broadcast over a loudspeaker by
a Christian minister. [Details have been omitted from the description of
this case because Americans United is trying to resolve the matter
outside of court.)

Unfortunately, there are some very high-profile coaches at public
colleges who frequently attempt to incorporate their religious views
into their programs. Take Dabo Swinney, head coach at Clemson
University, a public institution in South Carolina.

Swinney earns more than $5 million per year for a reason: He is
very good at his job, having gone 14-1 last season and narrowly missing
out on a national championship. But off the field, the Clemson coach has
a history of proselytizing to his players. In 2014, he was accused of
bombarding his team with religious activities, including official team
prayers and Bible study, and was accused of busing his players to local
churches for Sunday services.

None of that is surprising. When Swinney accepted the job in 2008,
he remarked, “I hope people will really listen to me when I tell
them what my secret to success is, and that is to put your eyes on the
Lord in everything you do, and believe in yourself, and don’t
quit.”

The Clemson team was also accused of using taxpayer dollars to
employ an official team chaplain, a former player named James Trapp. But
a school official told the Columbia State that Trapp is not an employee.
Instead, he is listed as campus director of the Fellowship of Christian
Athletes, and the team media guide calls him a “Volunteer Team
Advisor.”

Although Americans United receives more complaints about alleged
constitutional violations by public school football teams than in any
other sport, by no means are these problems limited to the gridiron. For
example, Americans United is involved in a case in which a softball
coach at a public high school in the Midwest has a habit of leading her
team in pregame prayers. Players who decline to participate find
themselves riding the bench. (Again, details have been omitted due to
the ongoing nature of the situation.)

There are problems with basketball teams, too. When Iowa State
University hired Steve Prohm to coach its men’s team last year, he
told the Des Moines Register that he intended to pray with his new team.

“I’ll ask them if they have prayer requests,” Prohm
said in 2015. “It’s not something you’re beating over
their head; you want to give them a foundation, so when they leave Ames,
it’s not foreign to them when they raise their kids, or have a wife
that they have a strong foundation and a strong faith.”

It’s clear that Prohm views his job as a basketball coach as a
ministry, too. The Register noted that he uses Bible verses, in addition
to prayer, to “motivate his players.” In a letter to the
editor of the Register, retired Iowa State journalism professor Dick
Haws raised concerns about the then-new coach, noting that players may
feel pressured to participate in the prayer practice.

“Prohm’s basketball players are impressionable young men,
many still teenagers. They want to keep that scholarship, they want to
play that basketball, they want to get that good recommendation from the
coach. So, when coach asks them about prayer, they’ll know
there’s only one right answer,” Haws wrote.

And according to Haws, this wasn’t the first time Prohm sought
to proselytize on the job.

“If Prohm holds to form, he’ll pick a particular book of
the Bible to highlight here at Iowa State. That’s what he did at
Murray State,” Haws wrote. “Somebody sent me an article that
told of his emphasis on the Book of Nehemiah for the Murray State Racers
in 2013. The Bible verse he selected was ‘Stay on the wall. Do not
be distracted. There is important work to be done.’ The team’s
practice T-shirts read, ‘Stay on the wall.'”

It’s important to remember that infusing athletics with
religion can have real consequences for athletes–beyond simply making
non-participants feel ostracized. This is particularly true when it
comes to college sports. Last year, former Delaware State University
(DSU) volleyball player Natalia Mendieta filed a lawsuit against former
volleyball coach LaKisya Killingsworth and former DSU athletic director
Candy Young because she allegedly lost her scholarship after refusing to
attend church and other religious activities.

In the lawsuit, Mendieta asserted that Killingsworth required her
players to attend services at Calvary Assembly of God, a Pentecostal
congregation affiliated with the Assemblies of God. Mendieta, who is
Catholic, said she attended services initially out of fear of
punishment.

“Ms. Mendieta believed that her relationship with Coach
Killingsworth would suffer if she refused to attend the coach’s
church and, if she did, she would receive less playing time and her
scholarship might not be renewed for the following year,” the
lawsuit said.

Ultimately the relationship did suffer. Killingsworth reportedly
told students she “felt they all needed to have more God and Jesus
in their lives.” She organized team prayers before games, handed
out Bibles, and required students to attend Bible studies in addition to
church services. The legal complaint also says that she “strongly
encouraged” players to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Although Mendieta initially complied with the coach’s orders, she
says she became increasingly uncomfortable attending Pentecostal
services. And she wasn’t alone: One player reportedly left the team
in response to the constant proselytization.

Mendieta said she eventually wrote her coach a letter in March 2014
informing her that she would no longer attend Calvary. And that, she
says, is when the trouble started. According to the lawsuit, which is
ongoing, Killingsworth told Mendieta she didn’t care which church
Mendieta attended and told the team church attendance and Bible studies
were now optional. Nonetheless, the coach took to adding
“church” to the team’s official calendar.

Mendieta also asserted that after her letter, Killingsworth singled
her out for criticism. Then, when she and a few other players missed a
curfew by a few minutes in the fall of 2014, Killingsworth informed
Mendieta that she had lost her scholarship. The other players, however,
kept theirs.

Mendieta said in her legal filing that she depended on the
scholarship to pay for her education. When she lost that scholarship,
she said it was like losing her job.

“[The coach] controls whether I stay in school or not,”
Mendieta told WPV1, an ABC affiliate in Philadelphia. “The only way
that I could afford school was through my scholarship. So technically,
volleyball was my job.”

These anecdotes are only a sampling of the many, many instances in
which public-school athletes were subjected to unconstitutional
proselytizing. Ian Smith, an attorney with Americans United who handles
many of these cases, said the nature of sports as an activity tempts
far-right fundamentalists to defy the Constitution in a way that other
school activities don’t.

“I think it is because many see sports as a communal and
cultural activity, Smith told Church & State. “Coaches
don’t just impart skills for a game, they teach their charges to
‘become adults,’ and in many places being an adult member of
the community is equated with participation in organized religion.”

Added Smith, “The same goes for the games. If it is a
community activity and the community strongly subscribes to a particular
religion, then it is almost reflexive to include acknowledgement of the
community’s dominant religion. And while that is fine for private
sporting events, public school sports are government activities and
endorsement of religion at those activities is unconstitutional.”

Caption: Faith and football: Bremerton, Washington’s
controversial coach

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