School says football coach to stop prayers, but he denies it

Friday, August 21, 1998

A public school superintendent in Ohio says he has investigated parents' complaints but does not have enough evidence to suggest that a high school football coach has unconstitutionally mixed religion and education.

Jacob Froning, London City Schools superintendent, wrote in an Aug. 17 letter to the Ohio Department of Education and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that the only apparent mistake London High School coach David Daubenmire made was to encourage students to recite pre- and post-game prayers.

Froning assured the education department and the ACLU that Daubenmire would cease leading his players in prayer.

“During my investigation it became apparent that Mr. Daubenmire has either led or arranged for a team prayer on game nights …,” Froning wrote. “He has readily admitted to this. As it appears that this practice is constitutionally forbidden, Mr. Daubenmire has been directed by me (and has agreed to do so willingly) to stop this practice effective immediately.”

Daubenmire, however, said that his players would continue to pray before and after football games.

“Prayer is still allowed as long as it is student-initiated,” Daubenmire said. “Our team captains have already initiated the process.”

Daubenmire added that he would not lead those prayers but would participate in them.

Froning's letter and investigation of Daubenmire were prompted by London parents, students, faculty and staff. Froning received a letter from the state education department in early August stating that parents had complained that the coach led his players in the Lord's Prayer, encouraged his players and students to attend his church and proselytized in his global studies classes.

The state Department of Education told Froning to look into the allegations and report his findings.

“The Department of Education is obviously concerned about alleged constitutional violations in Ohio school districts,” wrote Karin Rilley, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Department of Education.

Rilley said that the department would likely respond next week to Froning's letter and investigation.

“Obviously he has acknowledged the coach should not be leading students in prayer and that the conduct would be ceased,” Rilley said. “The information we have regarding the situation is very limited, but we are aware of media accounts that suggest the situation may be bigger. We could always decide the superintendent has not given us enough information and ask him to respond further.”

In an Aug. 11 letter to Froning, the ACLU demanded that London school authorities “take the necessary steps to prevent Mr. Daubenmire from using his position of authority” to promote his brand of Christianity during school hours. The ACLU sent the letter to Froning after hearing of the citizens' complaints.

Gary Daniels, the Ohio ACLU litigation coordinator, said the civil rights group was not satisfied with Froning's response.

“We are distraught that he thinks he lacks evidence regarding the whole host of things that have been going on in that district,” Daniels said. “We don't find his response sufficient and we will respond to the London school district very soon. If the school district authorities want or need specific instances and proof, we will be happy to provide them.”

In his letter, Froning said he lacked evidence to prove Daubenmire encouraged his players and students to attend his church, tried to convert them during class, or in any other way improperly mixed education and religion.

“In conclusion, the evidence indicates to me that Mr. Daubenmire most probably did teach about religion in the sense of its influence on history but did not provide religious instruction to students or team members,” Froning wrote. “I have no evidence that Mr. Daubenmire has in any way coerced students with respect to his religious beliefs or teachings.”

Daniels said that a local citizens group, which formed in large part over concerns about Daubenmire, had collected affidavits from London parents, students and teachers stating that the coach had in fact been promoting religion. Daniels added that the group's affidavits would be gathered along with other information and presented to school and district authorities.

Daubenmire scoffed at ACLU suggestions that more evidence of wrong-doing could be provided and suggested his own rights may have been violated.

“I have waited six months for them to produce evidence and all they have done is put out rumor and innuendo,” Daubenmire said. “I believe I have been vindicated by Froning's letter and that I have not violated anyone's rights. I do believe, however, that my own rights have been trampled on.”

Daubenmire said the American Center for Law and Justice, a national legal and education organization devoted to supporting religious-liberty rights of Christians, had expressed interest in his situation.

Calls placed to the ACLJ regarding Daubenmire were not returned.