BRIDGEPORT, Mich. – A national atheist activist organization has requested an investigation into what it calls a “flagrant violation of the First Amendment” after learning that coaches and players of a Michigan high school’s junior varsity football team circled up to pray with another team after a recent game.
“This conduct is unconstitutional because coaches endorse and promote their own religion when acting in their official capacities as school district employees,” the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote in a recent letter to the Bridgeport Spaulding School District.
According to reports, after a junior varsity football game in Michigan between Bridgeport High School and Ogemaw Heights High School, players and coaches from both teams gathered together in the middle of the field to hear a few words from the Bridgeport head coach.
One of the attendees that day, Ashley Miller, described in a Facebook post what happened next.
“At that point, the [Bridgeport] coach talked to the kids about how it’s not just about winning but the sportsmanship, … then every player bowed their heads (including coaches) and they prayed!” she wrote. “They prayed on the football field … both teams together. This was amazing to me! I don’t know what was said, but that right there made my heart and soul smile! Kudos to the coaches and players!”
Miller shared a photograph of the two teams kneeling in prayer in the middle of the field. Players from both teams can be seen kneeling together in a circle with their helmets removed and heads bowed.
“That simple gesture brought both of our teams closer,” Miller wrote.
Hundreds responded to Miller’s post by “liking” or sharing the photo and leaving comments of their own.
“I think this is a wonderful,” one remarked.
“This is a beautiful sight,” another said.
“We need more of these gestures in our schools and at our sporting events,” a third wrote. “God bless the coaches.”
However, when FFRF found out about the post-game prayer after a “concerned citizen” brought Miller’s Facebook post to their attention, it submitted a letter of complaint to the district superintendent.
“It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer,” wrote legal director Rebecca Markert. She argued that such a prayer is tantamount to an endorsement of religion and is therefore unconstitutional.
“We ask that Bridgeport Spaulding School District commence an immediate investigation into the complaint alleged and take immediate action to stop any school-sponsored prayers occurring within any district athletic programs,” Markert requested. “Please inform us in writing of the steps you are taking to remedy this serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”
In an associated press release, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said that the Bridgeport football coach’s decision to pray was “extremely unbecoming of coaches.”
“Public school employees should be aware that a good portion of their student population is most often comprised of individuals with different beliefs or no belief,” she stated. “Students should not be expected to pray to play.”
Although FFRF has expressed displeasure, others state that they support the post-game prayer.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” one commenter wrote. “Yes, I am a Christian, but even if I had not been, I would hope I would still be able to see the unity that it encouraged! A friend tagged me in the picture, and you can actually see both head coaches with an arm around each other. It’s a good thing!”