Phil Ummel, who coaches girls' soccer at a high school in Nappanee, Indiana, has been taking his students on mission trips abroad to convert people to Christianity, which doesn't sit well with some (video below).
Ummel spoke with WNDU in June about taking the team to Panama for a week-long mission:
This is the third one I've taken, and the goal is to do it every three years. Every kid, once in their high school career, gets a chance to go on one of these trips with us.
My first year coaching, I had a girl who took a trip to a baby center in Kenya, and just came back just raving about the experience and how it just changed her life and how impactful it was. And I started brainstorming about, "how can we actually do this with an entire team?"
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The students are doing the mission trips through a Christian organization, SCORE International.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that advocates for the separation of church and state, issued a press release on July 6 that warned the Christian mission trips were a violation of the constitution.
The FFRF noted that SCORE is short for "Sharing Christ Our Redeemer Enterprise," and includes a Christian vision statement on its website: "To glorify God through missions in obedience to the Great Commission."
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The FFRF stated that Ummel is an "official representative of the public high school," and noted that public schools are not allowed to promote or advance religion. The FFRF added that the mission trips, organized through a Christian evangelical organization with the purpose of converting people (SCORE), promote Christianity over all other religions.
The FFRF called the trips "unconstitutional," adding, "this religious advancement excludes non-Christian and nonreligious students."
The FRRF acknowledged that the Christian mission trips are voluntary, but said that "is irrelevant" because courts have repeatedly ruled that a voluntary action does not get a free pass to violate the constitution.
The FFRF also noted that Ummel's participation and promotion of the evangelical trips, while he represents the public school district as a soccer coach, violates the Establishment Clause in the constitution.
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote a letter to Superintendent Joe Sabo to protest the coach's trips.
"Public school officials in their professional capacities may not proselytize or encourage students to engage in religious activities, and must remain impartial in all matters regarding religion," Jayne writes. "Coach Ummel did not remain neutral here; he used his position as a district employee in order to promote his personal religion, and recruited his student athletes to help him."
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in the press release: "It is well outside the bounds of a public school employee to suggest what religious activities its students should participate or not participate in. This is a shocking violation of the hallowed principle that state education and religion should be kept separate."