Public school officials in Putnam County, Tenn., have agreed to stop allowing coaches to lead students in prayers after games following intervention by Americans United.
AU’s attorneys wrote to officials at the district on Sept. 2 and informed them that coach-led prayer (and other violations) at the district must stop. AU’s legal team took the action after receiving complaints from members of the community.
In its letter, AU noted, “Public schools exist to serve all schoolchildren regardless of faith or belief and must be welcoming to all. When public schools include prayer or proselytizing content in school activities, they convey disrespect for students’ and families’ beliefs and send the message that students who do not practice the officially favored faith or do not participate in the prayer are unwelcome outsiders who do not belong.”
District officials have acknowledged that Americans United is right. In a statement to a local TV station, they said, “We … understand that faculty and staff members can not [sic] lead or participate in the spontaneous student-led prayers.”
That should have been the end of the matter; but when word got out in the community that AU had raised these issues, some players, parents and community members decided to gather on the field at the end of a football game and pray.
“Satan’s power was defeated tonight,” one man crowed on Facebook. Right-wing media sites subsequently made a big deal over the group prayer.
But as AU pointed out, the problem in Putnam County was that coaches, who are representatives of the school system, were leading students in prayer – something the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated nearly 60 years ago.
Public school students, AU pointed out, have the right to pray in public schools in a non-disruptive manner. Members of the community can pray as well as long as no one is forced to take part.
“If some of the good folks in Putnam County want to believe they’ve pulled one over on us, that’s fine,” observed Senior Adviser Rob Boston on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog. “AU won’t quibble over that. But rather than gloat, I’d recommend that students, parents and staff members in the district read AU’s ‘Know Your Rights’ guides that outline what’s permissible and what’s not when it comes to religion in public schools. Who knows? They might just learn something.”