FFRF of Georgia

Mo. football coaches should stop organized prayer, FFRF insists

Written on 10/13/2020
Lauryn Seering

Jasper

Missouri high school’s coaching staff is repeatedly violating the Constitution by organizing regular prayers with the athletes, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.



Joey Ballard, head coach for Jasper High School’s boys football team, regularly leads team prayer, a concerned parent of a player has informed the state/church watchdog. During these prayers, student-players have gathered around Ballard on bended knee, with additional coaching staff surrounding the students while Ballard has given a Christian prayer and then led the students in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer, FFRF reminds the school district.

“The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Jasper R-5 School District Superintendent Christina Hess. “Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers.”

In a case directly pertinent to the situation, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a high school football coach’s history of organizing, leading and participating in prayers before games was unconstitutional because it violated the Establishment Clause (Borden, 2008). The court stated that the coach’s involvement in the prayer by “taking a knee” and “bowing his head,” even when the prayer was student-led, “would lead a reasonable observer to conclude he was endorsing religion.”

Head Coach Joey Ballard’s conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee, as do the other coaches when they participate in these prayers, FFRF contends. They represent the school and the team when acting in their official roles as coaches of the Jasper High School boys football team. Therefore, they cannot lead the team in prayer, participate in prayers with students or organize or advocate for students to lead team prayer.

“The Jasper High School coaching staff is violating students’ right of conscience in regularly holding Christian prayer,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “No one should have to pray to play.”

FFRF is asking Jasper R-5 School District to commence an investigation into the complaint and take immediate action to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring within any district athletic programs.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members across the country, including over 400 members in Missouri. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.