EVANSVILLE, Ind. – A national professing atheist organization is urging an Indiana school district to launch an investigation into their high school football program after a local newspaper published a picture of the head coach praying with team members after a recent game.
In a letter to the superintendent of the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) described a “constitutional violation” that occurred after a recent high school football game between F.J. Reitz High School and Mater Dei High School.
“A concerned district community member contacted us to report that F.J. Reitz High School personnel, including head football coach Andy Hape, prayed with student athletes after a game against Mater Dei High School on Oct. 13,” the correspondence stated.
“It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer, participate in student prayers, or to otherwise promote religion to students,” the atheist group asserted. “We are writing to request assurances that this constitutional violation will not recur in the future.”
The post-game prayer was brought to FFRF’s attention after a local resident notified them of a picture published in Evansville’s local newspaper, the Evansville Courier & Press. In the picture, shown above, Hape can be seen gathered together with members of the football team after the game, their heads bowed in prayer.
“Coach Hape’s conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district representative,” FFRF’s letter contended. “Certainly, he represents the school and the team when he acts as a coach of the Panthers. When public school employees acting in their official capacities organize and advocate for team prayer, they effectively endorse religion on the district’s behalf.”
In a statement on Tuesday, the group described Hape as “ostentatiously devout.”
“Football games should be about athleticism, not religion,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in the statement. “Play, don’t pray!”
FFRF has therefore requested that the district investigate the matter and ensure that coaches do not pray with team members in the future.
“We ask that the district commence an immediate investigation and take action to ensure that in the future Reitz High coaches will not pray with students during District athletic programs and will not otherwise use their position as District coaches to promote religion,” the FFRF’s letter concluded. “Please inform us in writing of the steps you are taking to remedy this serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”
In recent years, the FFRF has taken issue with the pre- or post-game prayer routines of school districts around the country. Districts in Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Michigan have all recently received warning letters from the atheist group.
As previously reported, in 2015, a high school football team in Illinois responded to an FFRF complaint letter by issuing a statement of their own, in which they expressed their support for their coach, Mike Stine.
“We, as a football team and a family, give Coach Stine our full support,” the statement said. “He is the best coach in the state and cares about each and every one of us more than any other coach cares about his players.”
“We are proud that he is willing to stand up for his faith and for the example he sets for us,” it continued. “He is a role model for every one of us in a world where true male role models are becoming few and far between.”
The team then invited FFRF to attend a game and watch the players pray.
“The players will continue this tradition of praying before our games, and would like to extend an invitation to all members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to come out next fall and watch us pray and play the game we love,” they wrote.