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Atheist group challenges ECHS football prayers

  • By Sarah Fay Campbell
  • |
  • Nov. 04, 2017 - 12:00 AM

A video of football coaches at East Coweta High School praying with team members after a recent game caught the attention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national organization that advocates for “non-theists” and promotes the separation of church and state.

The foundation sent a letter to Coweta School Superintendent Steve Barker last week, calling the prayer unconstitutional and asking the school system to begin an immediate investigation into the complaint and to take action to stop school-sponsored prayers at athletic events.

The foundation stated in a news release that a “concerned local community member” reported to the foundation that John Small, East Coweta’s head football coach, had made it a habit to pray with his team.

Barker asked school board attorney Nathan Lee to provide legal guidance on the issue and last Friday, Barker met with coaches from the three public high schools to discuss the rules surrounding religious activity during school events. A memo from Lee was distributed to all school principals this week, Barker said.

While student-led, student-initiated prayer is absolutely a right that students have, school system employees should only be in a supervisory or custodial role during that prayer, according to Barker. “I think it is pretty clear that they can’t participate, or they should not participate,” he said Thursday.

The letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a related press release refer to “Coweta High School,” never calling the school by its proper name.

Though the letter alleges that Small was leading the team in prayer, that was not the case, according to Dean Jackson, Coweta Schools public information officer.

Instead, the prayer was led by a volunteer “community coach.” Though community coaches aren’t paid, they are representatives of the school system, and aren’t supposed to be leading prayers, either.

“Community coaches would not be any different in my opinion,” Barker said.

Barker said he wanted to make sure to have legal guidance available for school system employees.

“As superintendent, it is very important that when we have any matter with a legal question that we pass along the information to our employees,” Barker said. “Obviously we have responsibilities to our students. We also want our employees to be aware of anything that they might not even understand to be a problem from a legal perspective,” he said.

“I feel like it is my responsibility to make sure that we are following the law.”

The U.S. Constitution prevents Congress from making a law respecting the establishment of religion (the Establishment Clause) or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

According to Lee’s memo, “a school or other governmental action will be found unconstitutionally to ‘endorse’ religion where a reasonable observer familiar with the history and context of the action would perceive the action as a government’s endorsement of religion.”

The endorsement test is what protects the right of students to engage in voluntary prayer on school property, at school events and during the course of the school day, as long as the prayer is student-initiated and doesn’t interfere with school operations. It’s also what prohibits schools from discriminating against religious or non-religious clubs and organizations.

In the news release issued last Friday, the foundation boasted “The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put an end to a Georgia high school coach’s practice of praying with his players.”

Look for more on this issue in Sunday’s edition of The Newnan Times-Herald.