UPDATE 5:59 PM: The Freedom From Religion Foundation tells News 5 that their letter was based on the complaint of one parent who claims to have witnessed the incident at the game. They stand by their letter, but admit the claims come from that one parent and do not investigate themselves.
UPDATE: The Baldwin County Public School System says the facts are wrong, the school is wrong and the coach is wrong in a letter they received from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The school system goes over “the rules” of prayer in schools every year, this year is no exception. The district says the coach named in the letter was not even on the sidelines, that he had left to get help.
ELBERTA, Ala. (WKRG) – A local football team has come under fire from a religious freedom non-profit under claims the coach forced its players to pray.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) claims that on Sept. 5, Elberta High School’s Coach “coerced his team to pray after a football player was injured during an Elberta High school freshman football game” in Spanish Fort.
FFRF is an organization based in Wisconsin with members in all 50 states and promotes the separation of church and state under the First Amendment.
In a letter written to Baldwin County Public School Superintendent Eddie Tyler, the organization claims the coach took student-athletes to the sidelines and said, “I don’t care if your parents in the stands don’t like it. I don’t care if you don’t like it. We are going to pray for that boy on the field. Get on your knee now” before leading the players in prayer.
“conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion while acting in official capacity as a school district employee,” the letter goes on to read. “When a public school employee acting in official capacity organizes and advocates for team prayer, he effectively endorses religion on the District’s behalf.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down school-sponsored prayer as a violation of the First Amendment. Thus, public school employees cannot lead students in religious exercises, although students may organize and initiate them on an individual basis.
In a statement on FFRF’s website, the organization’s co-president, Annie-Laurie Gaylor, applauds the coach’s concern for the student, but says the incident should not serve as an opportunity to force students to participate in a religious exercise.
“While showing support for an injured athlete is laudable, the right thing for the coach to do is to get medical assistance — not promote a personal religious belief,” Gaylor said.
FFRF has requested the Baldwin County Public School system to investigate the alleged incident and take immediate action to stop school-sponsored prayer within its athletic system.
News 5’s Debbie Williams is reaching out to the organization as well as school officials to investigate the claims. Stay updated on this story as we confirm details and follow up on the incident.