Fans noticed one difference last Friday night when the East Coweta High School football team in Georgia took off their helmets to pray before the game — no coaches were present.
The Coweta County School System has banned the coaches from participating in the traditional pre-game prayer.
So in a show of solidarity, the entire team took off their helmets and standing shoulder to shoulder, prayed right next to the bleachers with many parents and students in the stands clasping hands and praying with the team.
Last month, a group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based non-profit, wrote a letter to the Coweta County School System, warning them it was illegal for public school employees to participate with students in prayer. It included a video showing Coach John Small bowing his head in prayer with his team. The video, the group said, was taken by a local concerned citizen.
According to The Newnan Times-Herald, Steve Barker, the district’s superintendent, asked school board attorney Nathan Lee to provide legal guidance on the issue.
Barker told the newspaper 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,” he 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,” Barker continued.
“I feel like it is my responsibility to make sure that we are following the law,” he said.
In addition, last Friday, Barker met with coaches from the three public high schools to discuss the rules surrounding religious activity during school events.
A memo was then distributed to all high school principals this week.
FFRF legal fellow Christopher Line said Small’s praying with his team violates the First Amendment.
“Coach Small’s conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee,” Line’s letter said. “Certainly, he represents the school and the team when he acts in his official role as Head Coach of the East Coweta High School football team.”
“Therefore, he cannot lead his team in prayer and he cannot organize or advocate for students to lead team prayer either,” he continued.
Though the letter alleges that Small was leading the team in prayer, that was not the case, Dean Jackson, Coweta County Schools public information officer, told the newspaper.
Many parents and students were outraged at the school district’s decision to ban coaches from praying with their teams.
Brian Pace’s son plays on the East Coweta team.
“If you feel the coach is leading the prayer, I could understand the separation of church and state, but what’s to say he can’t take a knee and have one of his players stand up and pray?” Pace told WAGA-TV.
Pace’s wife, Michelle, said she doesn’t see anything wrong with the team prayer.
“I have my right to pray and everybody else has a right to pray, so we’ll stand behind Coach Small and our boys,” she said.
Fourteen years ago, East Coweta graduate Clayton Herndon played for the team under a different coach.
“We said the Lord’s prayer at the 50-yard line before every game. After the game, we prayed together as well,” Herndon said.
Herndon now himself a coach, says he has followed in the footsteps of his old coach.
“I coach 8-year-olds on a football team and I pray with them every day,” he continued.