DANVILLE, Pa. — Football coaches at a school in north central Pennsylvania have been instructed to stop joining in pre-game prayers with players after a prominent professing atheist group recently contacted the school district to complaint about the practice.
According to reports, a resident of Danville contacted the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) to advise that coaches and players at Danville High School had been praying and singing praise songs together prior to football games. A video had circulated on social media showing the team singing the Rich Mullins tune “Awesome God.”
“This tradition of Christian prayer and worship songs reinforces the otherness of students like my children who are non-Christian,” another parent, Shakil Afridi, told the Sunbury Daily Item. “My friends who tend to be non-Christian or progressive Christians and some social justice Catholics are disgusted by this.”
FFRF sent a letter to Superintendent Cheryl Latorre to request that an investigation be conducted and that the matter be rectified.
“As you may be aware, it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to organize or participate in prayer with their teams,” the organization wrote. “We write to ensure that the district does not allow its coaches to proselytize students or to promote their personal religious beliefs in the future.”
As a result, Latorre has instructed coaches not to join the students in any prayer or worship, pointing to case law.
“Prayer can occur in a public school if it is student-driven and that our coaches are not to participate in any way,” she told local television station WNEP. “We’ve instituted the case law. We’ve made sure this isn’t happening.”
However, some are concerned about the development and believe that the coaches should have been left alone as participation was voluntary for both players and coaches.
“This is something so simple and heartfelt, but it was blown out of proportion,” parent Kristie Hilkert, whose son plays on the team, told reporters. “We 100 percent support the team prayer. No kid was forced to do it. It is such a special bond between these boys.”
“It is okay because they’re not seeing it as a religious thing, but as a family and unity thing,” stated parent Sherry Cooper, who also has a son on the team. “It’s bonding with their family. My son told me the coaches told the boys they don’t have to participate.”
Luke Watkins, a youth pastor at Danville First Baptist Church, told the Sunbury Daily Item that a number of members of the football team, as well as cheerleaders, go to the church the morning of a game to pray.
But FFRF says these aspects are irrelevant.
“It doesn’t matter if the prayer is voluntary or not,” FFRF attorney Sam Grover stated. “It is inappropriate to use a government position in that manner.”
As previously reported, last month, FFRF had also convinced another Pennsylvania school district to stop a coach from praying with players prior to games. Dunmore High School Head Coach Jack Henzes, a Roman Catholic, was instructed to immediately discontinue the practice.
“We directed Coach Henzes to be sure that he should not partake in any such behavior,” Superintendent John Marichak wrote to FFRF on Oct. 31. “We also covered this with all of our personnel to be consistent and exhaustive in the upholding of the law.”
Noah Webster, known as the Father of American Scholarship and Education, is stated to have once said, “[A]ny system of education … which limits instruction to the arts and sciences, and rejects the aids of religion in forming the character of citizens, is essentially defective.”
Webster is known for writing the nation’s first dictionary, as well as the renowned 1824 Blue Back Speller.