Ohio civil rights group sues school district, claiming coach advances religion

Thursday, July 1, 1999

Some parents in an Ohio public school district have asked a state civil rights group to represent them in a legal action to stop what they claim is religious indoctrination of student athletes at their high school.

Last fall parents and students in the London City School District complained to the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Ohio Department of Education that the London High School football coach was pushing his religious beliefs on his athletes as well as his students.

The Ohio Department of Education asked to Superintendent Jacob Froning to investigate the situation. Froning responded by saying he did not have any evidence that coach David Daubenmire had “converted or attempted to convert team members and/or students to his religious belief.”

The Ohio ACLU, however, collected affidavits from students and parents describing Bible-reading sessions, prayers and sermons all led by Daubenmire, either in his global studies class or on the football field. This week the Ohio ACLU included those affidavits in a lawsuit filed in federal court against the school district seeking an injunction against a “history of religious indoctrination directed at student athletes.”

Daubenmire admitted last year to leading his football players in pre-game Christian prayer, but after the ACLU's complaints he said prayer would be led by students.

“A lot of these allegations are old stuff,” Daubenmire said. “When it was brought to our attention last year that the students had to be the ones responsible for initiating prayer, it has been done that way ever since.”

Daubenmire also said that he had been in touch with the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal firm dedicated to defending Christians, and that the center would issue a statement regarding his situation soon.

The ACLU's voluminous complaint, which also names the Board of Education of the London City School District, the school district, the superintendent and several other school officials, alleges Daubenmire began proselytizing on the football field and in the classroom in the early 1990s.

“Since at least September 1991, London High School Head Football Coach David Daubenmire has openly, repeatedly and aggressively proselytized the student athletes in his charge,” Ohio ACLU attorneys state. “He has done so at team meetings, in the locker room, on the playing field and in the classroom. He has done so by leading students in prayer, by requiring students to recite passages from scripture, by pressuring students to attend his evangelical church, and by inviting Christian ministers to lead the football team in prayer.”

The complaint also alleges that members of school board knew of Daubenmire's actions and did nothing to correct or stop his actions.

Joshua M. Skaggs, a senior at London High School and member of the football team for three years, stated in an affidavit that after each football game, Daubenmire would corral the players into a circle in the middle of the field for a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. “These activities took place in full view of London High School administration officials,” Skaggs said. Skaggs said that in his junior year, Daubenmire ceased leading the prayer, but instead would instruct one of the team captains to begin recitation of the prayer.

“I grew tired of Mr. Daubenmire's constantly trying to cram his religion down my throat, as did some of the other players,” Skaggs testified.

The ACLU's complaint, which also asks the court to permanently enjoin Daubenmire and district officials from mixing religion and teaching, argues that such actions run afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“In London High School, David Daubenmire and his coaches have for eight years endorsed not only religion in general, but a particular vision of the Christian faith, and have coerced student athletes to participate in religious activities,” in violation of the separation of church and state, the suit states.

Daubenmire said the ACLU was “operating on information provided to them that is untrue and will be proven so in a court of law.”

“I will follow the law as written, but I'm not interested in giving away any more of my civil liberties and I have determined to take this stand not only for me but for the cause of Christ,” he said.

Daubenmire also said that he believed the ACLU was acting on rigid views of church-state separation.

“It is time for all Americans to wake up and look around at what is happening to our society,” he said. “I think there is something wrong in America when the burning of the flag is free speech and the rights of citizens to pray is somehow not protected.”