Officials at a public school in Alabama have offered local churches the opportunity to preach to student athletes in exchange for donations of water and snacks.
The unusual request came from Etowah County Schools, which sought donations of water and granola bars for middle- and high-school wrestlers. School officials told local churches that if they donated the items, they would be allowed to deliver a 15-minute “devotional” with the students.
“We know our churches play a vital role in this community. We are looking for some area churches to connect with our Southside Wrestling team in a very tangible way,” read a letter from the school. “During our wrestling season we supply our wrestlers with water and granola bars. We are asking local churches to consider donating 6 cases of water and 4 pks of 24 granola bars to help out our team. Of course we can always use more but this is a good starting point and will help up greatly. Some other donation ideas are sports drinks, uncrustables and trail mix. Every donation helps! This year we have close to 50 wrestlers on our team from Rainbow Middle School and Southside High School. We would like to give the churches, who are able to donate, a chance to speak into the lives of the students on our team by sharing a short 15 minute devotional. We are very excited about this opportunity again this year. We really enjoyed it last year.”
The offer was not apparently extended to any non-Christian or secular groups.
Attorneys with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) based in Madison, Wisc., wrote to school officials in December and told them to drop the program.
“It is well settled that public schools may not show favoritism toward or coerce belief or participation in religion,” wrote Chris Line, an FFRF attorney. “By explicitly inviting churches to proselytize to students, the district displays clear favoritism for religion over nonreligion, and Christianity above other faiths.”
Although the organization responded on behalf of a county resident, state Sen. Greg Reed (R-Jasper) attacked FFRF as outside meddlers.
“This week we are celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Reed said in a statement given to a right-wing site. “To Him goes all the praise and all the glory. That should be our focus, and it should not be interrupted by out-of-state groups trying to push faith out of our lives and the lives of our children.”
In response, Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF, said Reed “should take a minute to read our godless Constitution and refresh himself on constitutional principles mandating that the government and its schools stay out of the religion business.”
As of early January, FFRF said it had not yet received a response from Etowah County school officials.