A complaint from a parent who saw a post on Facebook has prompted administrators in a Central Pennsylvania school district to tell the district’s football coaches that they must comply with federal regulations regarding pregame religious traditions.
The change came after officials with the Danville Area School District were notified by a nonprofit organization of potential conflicts with the First Amendment. A written notice was sent Thursday morning to all the district's coaches reminding them that prayers and songs may only be led by students, Superintendent Cheryl Latorre told the Sunbury, Pennsylvania Daily Item.
Shakil Afridi, a parent of two children in the Danville district, located about 70 miles north of Harrisburg, found out about the pregame traditions observed by members of the school’s varsity football team when a friend shared a Facebook post. The post featured a video of players and coaches singing “Our God is an Awesome God” before a game this season.
“This tradition of Christian prayer and worship songs reinforces the otherness of students like my children who are non-Christian,” Afridi said. “My friends who tend to be non-Christian or progressive Christians and some social justice Catholics are disgusted by this.”
Afridi said a friend, who is a taxpayer in the district, also is troubled by the practice and contacted the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. The foundation sent a letter to Latorre requesting an investigation and proposing solutions to the situation.
In the Nov. 23 letter, foundation staff attorney Sam Grover said the organization was informed the coaches “regularly participate in prayer circles with their team and have organized the team to sing religious worship music.”
The letter included a picture of the football players, coaches and an adult equipment manager kneeling in prayer.
“It doesn’t matter if the prayer is voluntary or not,” Grover said in a phone interview with the Daily Item. “It is inappropriate to use a government position in that manner.”
Latorre said the administration has reminded the coaches that prayer can only be student-driven.
“Coaches were provided case law a few weeks ago, and we plan to share the letter with all coaches,” Latorre said in an email. “We will also include criteria in the coaches handbook.”
Danville High head coach Jim Keiser declined to comment, saying he was told by his attorneys not to talk to the media.
Parents of two players supported the practice, noting the pregame traditions are not required and lean toward team-building rather than required religious practices.
“It is OK because they’re not seeing it as a religious thing, but as a family and unity thing,” said Sherry Cooper, whose son Ken is a junior linebacker. “It’s bonding with their family. My son told me the coaches told the boys they don’t have to participate.”
“This is something so simple and heartfelt, but it was blown out of proportion,” said Kristie Hilkert, the mother of Danville senior running back Trent Hilkert. “We 100 percent support the team prayer. No kid was forced to do it. It is such a special bond between these boys.”
In the letter, Grover said federal courts have ruled both school-sponsored prayer and coach involvement with student-led prayer is unconstitutional because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“Schools can talk about religion, but they can’t teach religion as if it is true,” said American Civil Liberties of Pennsylvania senior staff attorney Sara J. Rose. “So teachers and coaches at public schools are constrained from endorsing specific religious beliefs. Pennsylvania has its own constitutional provisions, which have been interpreted as the same as the Establishment Clause.”
She said players could feel coerced into praying if they don’t want to stand out or get less playing time because they aren’t conforming to the coaches’ beliefs. “One way to be favored by coach is praying with him,” said Rose.
Grover added, “Religion needs to stay in the private sphere.”
“The coaches are not involved with the prayer at all,” said Hilkert.
“They are just letting the coaches know they shouldn’t influence the kids in any way,” said Cooper. “I don’t think the coaches would do anything to jeopardize the boys. I wouldn’t want anyone else to coach my boys. They’re good role models because of how they live their lives.”
Ginader writes for the Sunbury, Pennsylvania Daily Item.