A high school football coach in Georgia has been ordered to stop participating in his team's group prayer before and after each game. The school board had received a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a group committed to enforcing the separation of church and state. It was later disclosed that the coach did not actually participate in the prayer.
On Oct. 25, the FFRF submitted a letter to Coweta County School System Superintendent Steve Barker criticizing a video that appeared to show East Coweta High School (ECHS) Head Coach John Small praying with his team during a football game. The FFRF noted that Small's alleged participation in the student-led prayer violated the U.S. Constitution, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
"Coach Small's conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee," the FFRF stated in the letter. "Certainly, he represents the school and the team when he acts in his official role as head coach of the ... football team."
An anonymous community had contacted the FFRF about the video that appeared to depict Small participating the prayer. Several parents of the ECHS team players blasted the complaint as unfair.
"I have my right to pray and everybody else has a right to pray so we'll stand behind Coach Small and our boys," Michelle Pace, mother of an ECHS football player, told WAGA-TV.
Chris Line of the FFRF asserted in an interview that Small's alleged prayer was unconstitutional because it endorsed a religion while he is serving in the capacity of an educator, and doing such could alienate players who were not religious.
"It's not allowed because it sends a message to students that the school is endorsing the religion. ... They may realize the coach likes the prayer and he wants the prayer to take place, so I'm going to single myself out if I choose not to participate."
Barker requested legal guidance from Coweta School Board attorney Nathan Lee, who wrote a memo that concluded it would be illegal for a coach to participate in a school prayer.
"Representatives of the school cannot participate in any student-initiated or student-led prayer or other worship while acting in their official capacity," the memo said.
Barker later disclosed that Small was not actually present in the video that drew the complaint but that it was instead an unnamed community coach participating in the team prayer. Coweta County School System public information officer Dean Jackson announced that Small had never led a group prayer since he began coaching the team at the beginning of 2017, The Newnan Times-Herald reports.
Barker noted that it was still inappropriate for the community coach to participate in the prayer.
"Community coaches would not be any different in my opinion. ... I feel like it is my responsibility to make sure that we are following the law."
Small thanked the locals during an interview for its support.
"I knew this was an amazing community here in Coweta County when I got here, but what's amazing is this situation has made this community even stronger and better," Small said.
"We understand there are laws in place and we follow them to the best of our knowledge," Small continued. "Are we perfect? No, but no one is and we are always learning and trying to be better each day."
Small added that he was committed to ensuring that none of his players felt alienated during the team prayer, stating: "No one is forced to do anything if they choose not to."