Prayer before game

Members of the Dawson County High School football team are joined by other local players and coaches in a pre-game prayer. A national organization has taken issue with the practice and demanded the school system stop leading players in prayer.

FFRF calls foul on pre-game prayer by football coach

By Denise Ray This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A national organization has filed a formal complaint against the Dawson County School District over what it believes is a violation of the constitutional rights of students.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF))—a non-profit that focuses on efforts to separate church and state—issued a letter to school representatives demanding that the pastor be removed, and the school stop leading students in prayer.

A video posted by a parent on Facebook Sept. 7 shows a pastor leading football players in a pre-game prayer inside the high school locker room before the game against the West Hall Spartans.

"The concern obviously is for students who are non-Christian or non-religious, who are going to be forced to participate in religious rituals," said Chris Line with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Davis, according to the complaint, was listed on the football team's website as the "football character coach." The site now lists him as a "volunteer."

No matter what his title, Line said Davis' actions promote religion in a school setting, a violation of the First Amendment.

“It is well-settled law that schools cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for students or agree to have a volunteer teach other people’s children that character centers on religious belief, because public schools may not advance or promote religion,” the letter from FFRF stated. “The school cannot allow non-school adults access to the children in its charge, and it certainly cannot grant that access to ministers seeking to grow and target their religious ministries using students. This is a violation of both students’ and parents’ rights.”

“We're hoping the school district will take action to protect the constitutional rights of its students by having this pastor stop praying and preaching with the team," said Line. "We specifically ask that he be removed from the team."

The school district reviewed the complaint and issued the following statement.

"The School District became aware of a letter sent to the attorney for the District by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and apparently also mailed directly to local news media," Superintendent A. Damon Gibbs said in a statement. "After reviewing the information provided and conversations with appropriate school officials, the District is committed to following the parameters set forth in the First Amendment, and the court decisions interpreting the First Amendment, relating to both the establishment of religion and student’s rights to exercise their freedom of religion. We believe that our coaches have an understanding of those guidelines and will abide by them."

After news broke about the complaint, the team prayed without coaches before the Sept. 21 game against visiting rival Lumpkin County. A character coach will continue his volunteer role but will no longer lead students in prayer before Dawson County High School football games. Students will continue gathering voluntarily to express their beliefs and any prayers at the school will be student led.

In October 2017, the group sent a similar letter to the Coweta School System, after East Coweta High School's head football coach, John Small, was pictured praying with players. The action resulted in a restriction of religious activity at the school.

As if Oct. 14 video had received more than 73,000 views since its Sept. 7 posting.

According to its website, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis., based 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity. It is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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