JASPER, Mo. — A high school football coach in Missouri will no longer be leading his team in prayer after the school district received a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) claiming that the practice is illegal.
“Head Coach Joey Ballard’s conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee, as do the other coaches when they participate in these prayers,” the letter, submitted on Oct. 6, stated.
“Certainly, they represent the school and the team when acting in their official roles as coaches of the Jasper High School boys football team. Therefore, they cannot lead the team in prayer, participate in prayers with students, or organize or advocate for students to lead team prayer,” it asserted.
According to FFRF, a “concerned parent of a player” contacted the atheist-led Church-State separation group to report that Ballard was leading the Jasper High School’s Eagles football team in prayer. Video footage shared online shows players encircling Ballard as he prays and then leads them in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
“Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers,” FFRF wrote. “It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students.”
It asked that the Jasper R-5 School District investigate the matter and stop official-led prayers from being incorporated into any athletic programs.
According to a press release posted on Wednesday, legal counsel for the school district has now responded to advise that employees have been notified not to lead students in prayer.
“[W]e write to advise you about the actions the district took in response to your initial correspondence indicating that a coach of the Jasper R-V School District was leading students prayer,” wrote legal counsel Rachel Meystedt. “In response to your complaint, the district conducted an investigation into the matter.”
“We are unable to share the results of that investigation with you, as it involves confidential personnel information. However, we can tell you that employees of the district were reminded of the district’s board policy regarding religion at school and were also instructed not to lead students in, or promote, prayer,” it outlined. “This matter has therefore been resolved.”
While dealing with somewhat different details, as previously reported, former Washington high school football coach Joe Kennedy has been in a years-long legal battle after losing his coaching contract for praying at the 50-yard line. The U.S. Supreme Court declined — for now — to hear his case, but the conservative justices expressed that they were concerned about how Ninth Circuit had ruled on the matter, especially in situation where coaches are praying on their own but within eyeshot of others.
Justice Samuel Alito explained that the Ninth Circuit had misinterpreted case law, specifically the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, and had contorted it to mean that teachers and coaches such as Kennedy can never pray within view of students — even if they are silently praying over their lunch.
“According to the Ninth Circuit, public school teachers and coaches may be fired if they engage in any expression that the school does not like while they are on duty, and the Ninth Circuit appears to regard teachers and coaches as being on duty at all times from the moment they report for work to the moment they depart, provided that they are within the eyesight of students,” he wrote.
“Under this interpretation of Garcetti, if teachers are visible to a student while eating lunch, they can be ordered not to engage in any ‘demonstrative’ conduct of a religious nature, such as folding their hands or bowing their heads in prayer,” Alito continued. “This court certainly has never read Garcetti to go that far.”