Georgia High School Football Coach Banned from Praying with Players

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, FFRF, has led a campaign to end East Coweta High School football coach John Small’s practice of praying with his players in Georgia.

When the Coweta County School System seemingly bowed to the atheist organization’s wishes, the FFRF had every reason to claim a victory. However, the students, parents, and other members of this Georgia community wouldn’t be deterred.

Instead of wallowing in defeat, they’ve used the unfortunate event as a springboard for a spiritual revival.

The FFRF’s Complaint

Someone in the Coweta community filmed coach Small praying with his football players. After making the film, this individual waged a complaint.

The FFRF sent a letter to the Coweta County School System in late October. The document contained a picture of Small engaging his team in prayer. The letter warned about the illegality of public school athletic coaches furthering personal religious views by leading their teams in prayer. The atheist organization also pointed out that coach-led prayers signal a government advancement and endorsement of religion. They argued this practice was a stringent violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The FFRF informed the Georgia school district that coaches must both refrain from leading prayers and participating in students’ prayers. In the letter, the FFRF implored the Coweta County School System to immediately stop school-sponsored prayers. The atheist organization boasts more than 29,000 members across the country. It has more than 400 members in the state of Georgia.

Coweta County School System’s Decision

After receiving the letter from the FFRF, Superintendent Steve Barker asked school board attorney Nathan Lee for legal guidance concerning the complaint. Lee crafted a legal memorandum that was distributed to employees at all of the district schools on October 30.

The memorandum prohibits representatives from the school from participating in any student led worship or prayer while acting in their official capacity. Even if a prayer is initiated by students, coaches and their staff members can’t “join hands, bow their heads, take a knee or commit another act that otherwise manifests approval with the students’ religious exercise, at least where it would be perceived by a reasonable observer to display government endorsement of religion.”

The edict doesn’t prevent an employee from possessing a purely custodial role in student initiated or student led organizations. However, a clear indication that the role is only custodial is required. Additionally, employees aren’t compelled “to make their non-participation vehemently obvious or to leave or flee the religious observance or prayer.”

The FFRF was elated with the Coweta County School System’s prompt attention to the matter.

“We appreciate the district’s swift action to address the violation and its commitment to protecting the rights of conscience for all of its students,” the FFRF’s co-president said in a statement.

Community Response

In the first game after the memorandum on prayer was issued by the Coweta County School System, East Coweta football players organized near the hometown stands to pray with attendees before the game.

“Our students have done a great job and our students took it upon themselves to organize a prayer with our students in the stands before the game,” Small said in an interview with the Christian Post. “Instead of it being 100 players praying, it turned into 400 students praying. That’s their right and we are going to support them in that.”

On November 17, hundreds of students, parents, coaches, school administrators, and community members filled Garland Shoemake Stadium to enthusiastically listen to nine speakers at a prayer rally organized by the Coweta Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Coach Small was the first speaker at the event.

“I would encourage you that when adversity comes your way, you stand up, you look at it, and you say, God you’ve got this, don’t you? And stand strong,” he said, addressing the crowd. “Moving on from tonight, we’ve all got to be a united front, because I’m telling you the enemy ain’t gonna stop. But the good news is, we’ve already won. We just have to choose to walk in that.”

The FFRF may have successfully led the charge to end employee led prayers at Coweta County schools. Fortunately, their efforts haven’t weakened the faith of the people of Coweta County. Rather, a spiritual revival seems to be taking place. And for that, the residents of this Georgia community are thankful.

~ 1776 Christian

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