HOWARD – Moments after the East Knox High School football team beat Carey in the Division VI Region 22 championship game on Nov. 22, clinching its first state semifinal trip in school history, the coaching staff led the team in prayer.
Players and coaches kneeled and bowed their heads near midfield, and community members joined in.
Five days later, East Knox Local Schools received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, calling for the district to “commence an investigation” into the coach-led prayer, which is illegal in the United States.
“A concerned district parent contacted FFRF to report that the football coaches at East Knox High School, including head coach Cody Reese, are participating in prayer circles with their students during football games ...” said the letter, obtained by Knox Pages, which also includes photographic evidence of the prayers taking place.
“It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer. The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools.”
East Knox Superintendent Steve Larcomb confirmed Tuesday that he received the letter, titled “Unconstitutional Coach-Led Prayer” and dated Nov. 27.
“We have no comment,” Larcomb said in response. “We have received the letter and we will look into the situation.”
Larcomb said this is the first time East Knox has received a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation in his eight years as superintendent. He said the concerned parent, who reached out to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has not contacted the district to express their concerns directly.
“I have absolutely no idea who the allegedly concerned parent is …,” Larcomb added. “Nobody reached out to us before they went off and contacted these people.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including more than 800 members and a local chapter in Ohio. The organization’s stated purpose is “to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.”
In calling the East Knox coaching staff’s actions “unconstitutional,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation cites several U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), which ruled student-led prayer over the loudspeaker before football games unconstitutional; Lee v. Weisman (1992), which ruled prayers at public high school graduations unconstitutional; Abington Twp. School District v. Schempp (1963), which ruled school-sponsored devotional Bible readings and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer unconstitutional; and Engel v. Vitale (1962), which ruled school-sponsored prayers in public schools unconstitutional.
“In each of these cases, the Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes a government advancement and endorsement of religion,” the letter states, “which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Citing additional federal court decisions, the organization wrote that public school coaches must not only refrain from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers. Doing so amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, federal courts have ruled.
In its letter to East Knox Local Schools, the Freedom From Religion Foundation emphasized a decision in one recent federal court case, which it argues is relevant to the complaints made against East Knox’s coaching staff.
In Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick (2008), the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a New Jersey football coach violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by organizing, leading and participating in team prayers before games.
“In that case, the court stated that the coach’s involvement in the prayer by ‘taking a knee’ and ‘bowing his head’ during the prayers, even when student-led, ‘would lead a reasonable observer to conclude he was endorsing religion,’” the letter said.
“The court continued, ‘if while acting in their official capacities, (school district) employees join hands in a prayer circle or otherwise manifest approval and solidarity with the student religious exercises, they cross the line between respect for religion and the endorsement of religion.’”
Larcomb said the district does not anticipate legal action as a result of the allegations.
“I didn’t see anything in that letter that was threatening any legal action or anything,” the superintendent said. “I think they were just looking for a cease-and-desist of the coaches – being careful not to lead our students in prayer.”
The letter called the East Knox coaching staff’s behavior “unconstitutional because they endorse and promote their religion when acting in their official capacities as school district employees.”
“Certainly, they represent the school and the team when they act in their official roles as coaches of the football team,” it continues. “Therefore, they cannot lead their team in prayer and cannot participate in their students’ prayers. When public school employees acting in their official capacities organize and advocate for team prayer, they effectively endorse religion on the District’s behalf.”
The organization called for the district to “commence an investigation into the complaint alleged and take immediate action to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring within any District athletic programs.”
It also asked the district to inform the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in writing, of the steps it plans on taking “to remedy this serious violation of the First Amendment.”
Larcomb declined to comment on whether or not the district planned to take action in response to the allegations.
The letter was sent to the district via email and U.S. mail on Nov. 27, two days before East Knox was scheduled to play New Middletown Springfield in the state semifinals. In the letter, the Freedom From Religion Foundation called for the district to take action before that game, so that coaches would not organize another prayer circle afterwards.
After the state semifinal game, the East Knox coaching staff led the team in prayer once again.