NAPERVILLE, Ill. — A high school football team in Illinois is standing by its coach after he was recently told to stop leading players in prayer when a professing atheist group contacted the school district to lodge a complaint.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote to Naperville Community Unit School District 203 this week after photos surfaced of Naperville Central High School coach Mike Stine praying with his team, the Redhawks.
“It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer,” the letter, written by staff attorney Ryan Jayne, read.
“Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers,” it continued. “It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students.”
Superintendent Dan Bridges investigated the matter after receiving FFRF’s complaint, and contacted all coaches within the district, including Stine, to advise that they were prohibited from leading students in prayer.
“We are aware that a coach-led prayer is not appropriate,” a statement from the district, released on Thursday, reads. “The head football coach has been instructed that neither he nor his staff may lead his players in prayer. This message has been communicated to the athletic directors at both high schools to ensure that this expectation is shared with coaches of all sports at all levels.”
But FFRF says that it is not completely satisfied with the district’s response, sending a reply that states that the ban on coach-led prayer “does not go far enough.”
“As explained briefly in our original letter, it is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students,” Jayne wrote. “Any reasonable observer would understand a coach’s participation in a religious activity with students as an endorsement of that religious message.”
Stine’s team has now released a statement, expressing their support for their coach.
“We, as a football team and a family, give Coach Stine our full support,” the statement reads. “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 continues. “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 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,” it said. “Go Redhawks.”