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.”

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 WPVI, 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.”