April 2009 Church & State | Editorial

Last month the Supreme Court announced that it will not hear a case from New Jersey involving a football coach at a public high school who wanted to engage in religious activity with players. The high court’s action left in place an appellate court ruling saying the East Brunswick School District has a constitutional right to protect students from religious coercion by its staff.

Americans United represented the school district in this case, so we were pleased with the outcome.

We were not pleased, however, with the way some other coaches reacted to this controversy. 

“Every day when we finish practice, we take a knee, bow our heads and say the Lord’s Prayer – every day. We don’t miss a day,” football coach Louis Thompson of Lincoln County High School in Tennessee told the Nashville Tennessean. “Along with the Lord’s Prayer at practice, we have a silent prayer before each game where I tell them to pray for themselves and their teammates.”

Thompson added, “I’m going to continue to do it, and I couldn’t care less what the Supreme Court says or does.”

Americans United has encountered this attitude before. We heard it in Dover, Pa., where some members of the school board vowed to press ahead with a plan to teach “intelligent design” no matter what AU or members of the community thought.

We heard it in Iowa, where corrections officials refused to remove a publicly funded fundamentalist Christian program from a state prison, even though AU warned that the program was on shaky legal ground.

Our country has a court system for a reason. It’s to rectify injustices and make sure the law of the land is being followed. In Pennsylvania and Iowa, AU filed lawsuits on behalf of local plaintiffs and won. If we have to, we’ll do it again.

Defying the courts is not usually a wise move. Remember certain arrogant governors in the 1950s and ’60s who vowed to ignore court rulings mandating integration of public schools and universities? Some even stood in the schoolhouse door to block African-American students.

We know how that turned out.

The Supreme Court ruled school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional in 1962. Some high school coaches have apparently been operating under the assumption that there is some type of exemption for them. There is not, and the high court’s recent refusal to hear the New Jersey case is a reminder of that.

Ultimately, school administrators and elected members of school boards must make sure their employees obey the law. When a coach like Thompson openly vows to ignore court rulings, there is but one answer to that: Correct him. Tell him to follow the law, or be prepared to give up his job.

This incident stresses the need for groups like Americans United. Our grassroots presence helps educate and, when absolutely necessary, our legal team will litigate.