Ohio high school football coach accused of violating separation of church and state

Thursday, August 13, 1998

After complaints from parents that a high school football coach improperly mixed religion and education, the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union has warned the school district to straighten the coach out.

The ACLU's warning came only days after the Ohio Department of Education asked the superintendent of the London City School District to look into the parents' allegations that David Daubenmire, London High School football coach, has run afoul of the separation of church and state by proselytizing during school-sponsored events.

Parent Charles Blueston wrote the state education department in July and said the coach had been “blending religion and teaching.” Blueston wrote that he was distraught that the London school board had refused to take “effective action to end this situation.”

In April, Blueston and other parents presented to the London School Board evidence that the coach led his players in the Lord's Prayer, encouraged his players and students to attend his church, and improperly discussed religion in his global studies classes. The board, however, voted 4-1 to retain the coach, despite a recommendation by then-London High School Principal Steve Allen to fire Daubenmire. Allen resigned in early July.

According to The Madison Press, London's daily paper, Allen's resignation prompted the creation of a grass-roots community group – Citizens Advocating Responsible Education (CARE). The group has continued to question Daubenmire's actions.

Based on those complaints Karin Rilley, chief legal counsel for the state department of education, last week sent a letter to Jacob Froning, the London school superintendent, asking him to investigate the situation and report to the department.

Rilley said that although the state education department did not have the authority to discipline Daubenmire, it did have the power to instruct school district authorities to cease unconstitutional actions.

“As you know, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution requires all public school teachers and administrators, when acting in those capacities, to refrain from soliciting or encouraging religious activity and from participating in such activities with students,” Rilley said in her Aug. 6 letter to Froning. “Based on the citizen complaint, it appears that at least one member of your school district staff may have engaged in unconstitutional practices in the classroom and at other school sponsored events.”

On Aug. 11, the ACLU got involved in the situation when it sent a letter to Froning asking him to respond within two weeks to the ACLU's concerns. If Froning did not respond, the ACLU wrote, it would take “necessary steps to ensure that these activities do not continue.”

In its letter, the ACLU told Froning that it had received “complaints containing allegations such as, but not limited to, Mr. Daubenmire engaging in several constitutionally suspect activities including encouraging team members and students to attend his church, actively proselytizing to team members and students and impermissibly using religious-based materials” in both his class and coaching.

Froning said he could not comment, except to say that the district was investigating the case and that a report should be ready to send to Rilley next week. Froning said he would discuss the matter after the report has been prepared.

Daubenmire, who has been London High School's football coach for 10 years, said the ACLU had gotten involved in the situation solely on the basis of “third-hand knowledge” that was not true.

“If the charges were true, then certainly there would be a problem,” Daubenmire said. “However, those allegations are not true. As a team we do say the Lord's Prayer after football games, but no one is forced to join. To my knowledge we have not violated a school policy, the Ohio Constitution, or the federal Constitution.”

Daubenmire added that he wouldn't back down and had talked with the American Center for Law and Justice, a national religious-based organization that defends rights of Christians. Daubenmire said the ACLJ was contemplating coming to his defense. No one at the ACLJ could confirm whether it would get involved.

“As a Christian man, I don't believe that I forfeit my constitutional rights when I go to work,” Daubenmire said. “I also find it extremely ironic that in this day and age when kids are taking guns to school, pregnancy rates are rising, and drugs are infiltrating our halls, that some people find my faith in God to be a greater threat to students.”

Gary Daniels, litigation coordinator of the Ohio ACLU, said he was confident the information received regarding Daubenmire was reliable.

“Several London schools parents have collected affidavits from students and parents regarding Daubenmire's actions,” Daniels said. “That is first-hand knowledge, not third-hand.”

Daniels added that the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a long line of cases concluding that public school officials, in their capacity, cannot constitutionally promote their brand of religion.