Ohio high school coach continues to pray with team

Thursday, September 10, 1998

An Ohio high school football coach continues to draw criticism from citizens and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for allegedly trying to push his brand of Christianity upon students and players.

The Ohio Department of Education and ACLU in mid-August asked the superintendent of the London City School District to investigate London High School football coach David Daubenmire. The education department had received a complaint in April from a parent that Daubenmire had been leading his football players in Christian prayer before and after games, as well as proselytizing during school events and in his global studies classes.

Superintendent Jacob Froning reported back to the education department and ACLU that he talked to Daubenmire, who he said admitted leading his players in prayer and said he would stop it. Daubenmire, however, said on Aug. 21 that he would continue to participate with his players in prayer before and after football games. And on Sept. 4, the London High School football team participated in prayer before and after its opening game, with Daubenmire participating.

Gary Daniels, the Ohio ACLU litigation coordinator, said that the civil rights group was not pleased with the coach's actions.

“Basically, it remains our contention that school officials must remain neutral during these matters,” Daniels said. “We are not talking merely about an official-led prayer, but rather a wider range of participation on the coach's part. It is our belief and contention that his participation in these student-led prayers amounts to an endorsement of religion.”

The ACLU is collecting information about student and citizen complaints that Daubenmire has flouted the Constitution by improperly promoting Christianity in his capacity as a state official. The First Amendment bars federal and state governments from establishing a religion.

In late August, Daniels sent a letter to London High School requesting “any and all documentation” about the coach and “allegations that he has engaged in practices that may violate the constitutionally mandated practice of separation of church and state.”

Daniels said the group was also amassing affidavits from London parents and students regarding the coach's practices. Many of the statements were obtained from a grass-roots community group that formed in part because of members' opposition to Daubenmire.

Corey D. Sutch, a 1998 London High School graduate, said in an Aug. 15 affidavit that “unlawful religious activities” had taken place in the London City School District's classrooms and playing fields.

Sutch said Daubenmire proselytized in a reading-skills class. “Mr. Daubenmire brought out his Bible on several occasions and read passages to the class,” Sutch said. “On at least five occasions, he had me read biblical passages to the class as well. These bible passages were not used to teach English grammar or for comparative literature purposes.”

Sutch also said Daubenmire took up inordinate amounts of class time showing movies about Christianity.

“Among the movies which I remember watching in the class was one about Christmas and another called 'Jesus of Nazareth,'” Sutch said. “No movies about the holidays of non-Christian religious groups were shown. For instance, there were no movies about Muslim, Jewish, Shinto or Buddhist religious holidays.”

Daniels said the ACLU would send a report to the London School Board regarding Daubenmire after it has analyzed its information.

Although Daniels expressed displeasure with the coach's actions on Friday, he said he was glad the situation was getting some attention.

“This is a case that has generated publicity and debate about some of our most cherished fundamental rights,” Daniels said. “Oftentimes religious minorities fail to raise concerns about behavior such as Daubenmire's. Many school officials, students and citizens don't realize that such actions violate the establishment clause.”

Daubenmire did not return calls made in time for today's report.