ORLANDO — A Florida school district has decided to replace its use of local pastors as high school football chaplains and replace with the position with life coaches following a complaint from a prominent atheist organization.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to the Orange County Public School District’s attorney this past March, stating that its use of pastors as chaplains amounts to “illegal religious activity.”
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer a Christian minister unique access to befriend and proselytize student athletes,” the letter states, referring to reports that Todd Lamphere, pastor of The Venue Church in Apopka, Florida, has been serving as chaplain of the Apopka High School football team. “Accordingly, public high school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion.”
The correspondence also took issue with coach-led prayer, Scriptures on banners and apparel and Christian music in school videos, among other items.
In response to FFRF’s letter, earlier this month, district attorney Diego Rodriguez sent out a memo to the superintendent and others, advising that it is unlawful for Lamphere or others to serve as chaplain.
“Having a team chaplain is not permitted as it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion,” he wrote.
Rodriguez also stated that coaches and others may not lead students in prayer, and that Scriptures could not be utilized on apparel designed by school staff.
“Pursuant to established federal cases which this office has no authority to overturn and must abide by, teachers, coaches and other school personnel cannot lead or participate in prayer with students,” he said. “Therefore, please make sure to educate the staff at this and other schools that active participation by any School Board employee and/or non-faculty coach in student-led prayer must not occur as it is contrary to established case law.”
Christian music was additionally prohibited from being used in videos for the school produced by an outside company.
While FFRF considers the memorandum a victory, pastors in the area are appalled by what they view as a form of eradication of Christianity from public life.
“They said I could still come and speak, but I wasn’t going to be called a chaplain; they wanted to call me a ‘life coach,'” Troy Schmidt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Windermere and chaplain at Olympia High School, told Fox reporter Todd Starnes this past week. “I could no longer open the Bible, talk about the Bible, talk about God or pray with the team in any capacity. It was heartbreaking.”
He said that he rejects the new title, and will continue to take a stand in whatever way he can.
“I refuse the title of life coach,” Schmidt further explained on Fox & Friends Thursday morning. “I don’t want to be turned into an atheist chaplain, which is what they’re trying to do.”
In the meantime, he said that his church will continue serving free meals to the Olympia High School football team.
“We can’t stay silent any longer,” he told Starnes. “We can’t allow them to move into these areas that traditionally have always been a part of the football program.”