GAINESVILLE, Ga. — A nationally-recognized humanist organization is still expressing opposition to what it calls ‘a culture of Christian predominance’ after the superintendent of a Georgia school district responded to a controversy over alleged coach-led prayers at athletic events by barring coaches from continuing the practice.
As previously reported, the American Humanist Association (AHA) sent a letter earlier this month to the superintendent of Hall County Schools, the principal of Chestatee High School and the chairman of the Board of Education after it received any complaint from a local resident about practices at the school.
According to the letter, written by AHA attorney Monica Miller, coaches at Chestatee High School have allegedly been citing Bible verses on team documents and either leading or joining with the team in prayer.
“We have received reports that CHS coaches have joined players in prayer while standing in a circle, hands interlocked. At times, the head coach has led the prayers, which is an egregious violation of the Establishment Clause,” the correspondence reads. “Further violating the Constitution, a citation to Galatians 6:9 was placed at the bottom of workout log sheets given to players, and the citation and text of Proverbs 27:17 was written in giant letters on a banner used for a football team pregame entrance.”
The organization threatened a possible lawsuit if the practices are not discontinued.
This past week, Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield sent an email to staff members within the school system advising that while students may freely join together in prayer, it is “off-limits for teachers and coaches to lead students in such prayers.
“The Hall County School District wholeheartedly defends the almost unlimited rights of students to exercise their religious beliefs,” he wrote. “As long as activities do not infringe upon or disrespect the religious beliefs of others, or disrupt classroom instruction or school routines, students have the right to pray, read religious materials, talk to their classmates about their beliefs, and … form clubs or associations with students who share similar interests.”
“[But] by law, and under current legal interpretation by the courts, public school employees on the job do not enjoy the same level of religious freedom at school as do our students, yet their religious rights do not evaporate at the schoolhouse gate,” Schofield continued. “Teachers, coaches, administrators, and other school employees may live out their faith in a variety of ways; however, they must not be leading students in prayer during school or school-sponsored activities, nor may they require or pressure students to participate in religious activities.”
But David Noise, attorney for AHA, said that Schofield’s email did not go far enough and allows Christianity to be predominant in the district over other religions–or no religion at all.
“It is not encouraging that Schofield referred to students’ religious freedom while in school as almost unlimited, as that sends a signal to the community that a culture of Christian predominance can continue,” he wrote. “Based on the extensive feedback that we’ve received from the community, it’s clear that non-Christians feel that the atmosphere of Christian privilege is overwhelming, and the Schofield statement seems more concerned about appeasing the majority than addressing that problem.”
The organization is waiting for a formal response from the district. It is unknown whether AHA will abandon its threat of a lawsuit following this past week’s directive from the Hall County Superintendent. As previously reported, over 200 students and their parents gathered in prayer on the Chestatee High School football field following AHA’s issuance of the threat as a means to show solidarity in support of their coaches.
“We choose to pray, they don’t make us pray,” Megan Ellis, a student at the high school, told reporters.
“I think [the controversy is] really ridiculous. Every school does it,” added Marlen Olvera. “Every school prays before football games and after football games. It’s not the coach’s decision; it’s the students decision.”