ABERDEEN, S.D. — Coach-led prayers are no longer allowed at a high school in South Dakota after a prominent atheist activist organization sent a letter of complaint asking that the practice be discontinued.
Officials with the Aberdeen School District recently received a letter from the Madison,Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) surrounding an anonymous complaint it received that Aberdeen High School Coach Mike Flakus and his assistant coaches were allegedly leading the school’s football team in prayer before games.
“It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead prayers at public school events,” the letter, which included a photograph from a local newspaper, stated. “More notably, federal courts have specifically held public school coaches’ participation in their team’s prayer circles unconstitutional.”
It asked that the district put an end to the coaches’ participation in pre-game prayers.
“Aberdeen School District must take immediate action to ensure that coaches do not lead, organize, encourage or participate in prayers with their teams,” the correspondence continued. “The coaches’ apparent organizing and obvious participation in a team prayer constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”
In response, Superintendent Becky Guffin replied by advising that an investigation had been conducted as requested, and that coaches were instructed not to pray with the team.
“We have completed an exhaustive investigation, and we were unable to identify any further violations of this constitutional requirement,” she wrote in the short reply. “All members of the administrative leadership team and coaching staff have received follow-up correspondence which instructs them not to organize, encourage, or participate in student prayer at any event sponsored by the district.”
But not everyone is pleased with the decision to keep the school’s coaches out of the huddle. Bob Myers, pastor of First Baptist Church of Aberdeen, told the Associated Press that he disagrees with FFRF’s assertions.
“I think it is appropriate for coaches to join students in their prayer. After all they are a team, and the coach is part of a team. He is part of that community,” Myers said. “I think as long as students initiate it, the coach has every right to express himself in that same way. . . . There’s all kinds of school districts that are saying this can’t be done, and you can’t do this, but I think that’s a violation of the coach’s religious rights under the constitution.”
As previously reported, last month, a football coach in Arizona was suspended for two weeks for praying with his team. Tom Brittain, the head varsity coach for Tempe Preparatory Academy, a state-funded charter school, received much support following his suspension as some area residents wore t-shirts and/or brought signs to the homecoming game to speak out in favor of the coach. Students also tied a poster to the stands during the game, which read, “We believe in Coach Brittain.” Personal messages were additionally written on the poster, such as “I love you. God bless you, coach,” and “Thank you.” Some students drew a cross or shared Scripture.
“I think it’s outrageous,” area resident Keith Wibel told reporters. “Ray Rice gets two games for cold-cocking his fiancée and Tom Brittain gets two games for praying.”