Religion should be excluded from coach’s game plan

Sunday, July 6, 1997

I played varsity football for two years. Before every game
we prayed. My coach was very active in the church and encouraged
his ideas. We held our team dinners at church and also prayed
before the meal. All of the 50 members of the team participated
in the rituals. Is it constitutional for our coaches to lead and
encourage prayer?

Jess Barnett, Ojai, Calif.

No. While your coach may be sincerely motivated, he may not use
his position as coach or teacher to promote his religion. The
establishment clause of the First Amendment has been interpreted
by the courts to mean that public school officials must neither
promote nor inhibit religion.

Students are another matter. Some members of the team may decide
to pray before games. Under the First Amendment, they have the
right to do that as long as they don't coerce others or disrupt
instruction from the coaches.

Of course, those who wish to pray should respect the rights of
those who don't-and vice-versa. Peer pressure in high school can
be a powerful force. In some school districts, those of the majority
faith may subtly or overtly make students of minority faiths feel
excluded for not participating in the prayer. In other places,
those who pray may feel ridiculed by a majority that has little
or no interest in religion.

Potential peer pressure and lack of respect for others' rights
make it particularly vital that coaches act on behalf of all players.
The coach should let players know they won't be penalized for
participating or not participating in these prayers. By creating
an atmosphere of respect and fairness for students of all faiths
or none, the public school coach models our civic responsibility
under the First Amendment.

You also ask about team dinners held off-campus after school
hours. If membership on the team means that you are expected to
attend these events, then they are school-sponsored. In that case,
the coach may not use the dinners to promote his religious faith.
Again, if students wish to say grace before their meal, that is
their right.

Team dinners may be held in the facilities of a local church
as long as the coach or the congregation doesn't use these events
as opportunities to proselytize the students. If the coach is
sensitive to the feelings of all his players, he will have the
dinners in a variety of locations. Just as a Christian student
might feel uncomfortable going to a weekly dinner at a mosque,
so a Muslim student might feel awkward going to the coach's church
each week. Many students, particularly those of a minority faith,
may find it difficult to speak up when the coach and the majority
of the players are of the dominant faith.

What the coach does on his own time is his business. After his
contract time, the coach may well have contact with students in
other settings, including his church. Many public school teachers
and coaches are active in their religious communities. Some teach
Saturday or Sunday school or lead Bible study. Students and teachers
are often members of the same local congregation.

There is, of course, nothing unconstitutional about any of this.
The First Amendment guards the right of all citizens, including
those who are employed as teachers and coaches, to practice their
faith openly and freely. On the job, however, public school officials
must make sure that the government guards the religious liberty
rights of all and remains neutral concerning religion.