The Freedom From Religion Foundation is reprimanding a Florida school district for granting unconstitutional access to a Christian proselytizing group.
Concerned local residents informed the national state/church watchdog that the West Central Florida Fellowship of Christian Athletes was given access to Polk County Public Schools property and employees in order to create a promotional video for its religious organization. The video displays several scenes showing former Kathleen High School football coach Anthony Troutman promoting this religious organization while on school property, including a school weight room, stadium and gymnasium.
Fellowship employees Mark Wilson and Terry Green even discuss in the video how they are taking advantage of the Polk County school system in order to grow their religious ministry. They recognize that they have “the unique opportunity to be on school campuses … and [they are] taking the gospel to [students] through this platform of sport.” Coach Troutman explains how the fellowship works to bring local churches onto campus in order to recruit students as part of their religious mission, specifically mentioning that Grace City Church was able to go into Kathleen High School to recruit students. Green brags that “character coaches” from the organization are the group’s “bread and butter.” These character coaches are outside adults who are being allowed into team locker rooms and on the sideline at games, permitted to interact and preach with students throughout the district.
All such activities are unconstitutional, FFRF stresses.
“District employees and coaches may not grant outside adults access to school-sponsored activities to proselytize to students or agree to have a volunteer teach other people’s children that character centers on religious belief, because public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the district’s legal counsel. “Allowing an outside religious organization to use district property and employees in order to create a recruitment and fundraising video raises additional concerns about Polk County Public Schools advancing and promoting religion.”
No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school, FFRF adds. This conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags.
And allowing church representatives regular, or even one-time, access during school hours to proselytize and recruit students for religious activities is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The courts have protected public school students from overreaching outsiders in similar situations. It is especially important that district employees and coaches maintain arm’s length separation from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and its events, given the group’s explicit declaration of its intention to get coaches to “play the role as pastors,” which, if successful, would amount to a clear First Amendment violation by the District. Further, the district’s indulgence of the fellowship shows disdain for the 35 percent of Americans who are not Christian.
FFRF is asking the district to commence an investigation into the complaint and take immediate action to ensure that its sports programs are no longer allowing outside adults, including fellowship volunteers, to have access to evangelize students during school-sponsored events in violation of their constitutional rights.
“The brazenness of this Christian group is breathtaking,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “What seems to have made their proselytizers supremely smug is the privileged access the school district has granted them.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,600 members in Florida and the Central Florida Freethought Community. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.