When the atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to Georgia’s East Coweta High School warning them that a tradition of coaches leading or participating in prayer with student athletes was impermissible, they probably thought they had already won the battle.
In a way, they did: The coaches didn’t lead the students in prayer. But that didn’t mean the players — or the fans — weren’t going to bow their heads before the Lord.
Instead, when East Coweta took the field for a recent Friday night game, according to WAGA-TV, they had more than just the football players bowing their heads.
“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. Instead of it being 100 players praying, it turned into 400 students praying,” East Coweta coach John Small told the Christian Post. That’s their right and we are going to support them in that.”
And, as you can see, things seemed to have worked.
The whole thing began when the FFRF sent a letter to Superintendent Steve Barker on Oct. 25 about Coach Small’s praying with the team.
In a statement, the FFRF said they informed the district “that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to further personal religious beliefs by leading their teams in prayer. Coach-led prayers, FFRF points out, equate to a government advancement and endorsement of religion — a stark violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
“Not only must public school coaches refrain from leading prayer themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers, FFRF informed the district. When a public school employee in that official role organizes and advocates for team prayer, religion is endorsed on the district’s behalf.”
A memorandum drawn up by the school district said that the coaches couldn’t “bow their heads” or “manifest approval” if students led the prayer themselves, but they could still be there for it.
“We are not allowed to be in the middle of it but we have a right to be there with our players. We don’t have to flee (the scene),” Small told the Christian Post.
“If my head is bowed, nobody can tell me what I am thinking. I am not leading the prayer. I am there supporting my kids. Whether I am praying or not, nobody can say I am or I ain’t.”
As you can see, the new student-led prayer certainly didn’t make for any less prayer on the football field.
Small says that it’s “really turned into a positive” for the team.
“I think what is happened with this organization (FFRF), whatever their intent was, you tell teenagers they can’t do something, surely they are going to do it,” Small noted. “It has really turned into a positive because at the end of the day, we are trying to teach students about leadership and they should be the ones taking the charge on it anyway.”
Amen to that — literally.