Christian Legal Group Tackles Tiff Over Football Coach, Student-Led Prayers

_DSC4636BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. – A religious liberties advocacy group has mailed a letter to a school district in southeastern Michigan, asking them to revise a controversial school prayer policy that has put a voluntary practice of student-led, post-game prayer in jeopardy.

Bloomfield Hills Schools (BHS) generated a sizable controversy earlier this year when one of their high school football coaches was accused of leading prayers after school games. In late February, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to the school, asserting that the practice was inappropriate and unconstitutional.

Upon further inspection, school officials determined that the football coach was not leading the post-game prayers, but was instead simply present at student-led prayers. Nevertheless, school administrators still asked him to stop this practice, contending that observers might think the coach was leading the routine. District spokeswoman Shira Good told the Detroit Free Press that the coach in question “apologized and took responsibility for being there while the prayers were led.”

Following the complaint, BHS considered banning the student-led prayers altogether. At one point, the school superintendent, Robert Glass, told The Oakland Press, “Student-led prayer is not to be part of post-game proceedings.”

At issue were a couple sections in the school’s 408-page policy manual, labeled “Policy 5605” (page 307) and “Regulation 5605.1” (page 308). These policies claim that the U.S. Constitution establishes “a clear separation of church and state” which the schools must be careful to follow.

“Religious ceremony and religious indoctrination have no place in public education,” Policy 5605 clearly states.

Even though religiously-oriented artistic activities or objects are acceptable, Regulation 5605.1 mandates that “[c]eremonies, prayer or references of any religious nature are prohibited at school-sponsored events such as banquets, commencement, assemblies and programs.”

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In a statement released earlier this month, Superintendent Glass said school staff members “understand the delicate balance of respecting a student’s faith and freedoms, while maintaining a neutral learning environment.”

Furthermore, Glass told Detroit’s WDIV-TV that the “whole issue rests on two boundary lines.”

“We do not want to establish or endorse prayer or any religion,” he explained, “nor do we want to inhibit anyone’s rights to pray. We have to live within those two boundaries.  We have to work that out and that’s what we’re doing, always have, always will. That’s what makes a good, respectful community.”

However, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, announced on Wednesday that they have mailed a letter to BHS administrators, asking them to revise their religious expression policies. Using quotations from court precedent, ADF lawyers argue in the letter that the school’s aforementioned Regulation 5605.1 violates students’ First Amendment rights, and that Superintendent Glass’s statement regarding students’ “faith and freedom” was demonstrably false.

“Courts, including the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which has jurisdiction over the State of Michigan and the District,” the 5-page letter reads, “have long recognized that the ‘separation of church and state’ is an ‘extra-constitutional construct [that] has grown tiresome.’ ‘The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state.’ Accordingly, the District cannot rely on such platitudes to justify censoring students’ private religious speech.”

“It is clear in this case that the … football coach did not sponsor or participate in the team’s prayers,” the letter continues. “He merely stood by respectfully while students voluntarily exercised their First Amendment rights—like responsible citizens—after the game. Such non-participatory supervision does not violate the Establishment Clause, regardless of what the youngest spectators might misperceive.”

ADF spokespersons state that they will consider taking legal action against the school if the policies in question are not modified.

“The Constitution should be the only permission slip students need to exercise their freedom of speech,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “We commend the school for not caving to the ACLU’s unwarranted demands, but urge them to amend their outdated policies so that this does not happen in the future and students’ religious speech is protected.”


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