An Illinois school district coached its employees on the Constitution after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained about its overly religious staff.
Personnel from the Teutopolis Community Unit School District #50, including basketball coach Mike Walker, prayed with student athletes after a recent game against Pana High School. The principal of Pana High School, Gayle McRoberts, posted a picture of the prayer on social media.
FFRF reminded the school district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer or participate in student prayers.
"It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Superintendent Bill Fritcher. "Federal courts have held that even a public school coach's silent participation in student prayer circles is unconstitutional."
FFRF's letter jolted the Teutopolis Community Unit School District #50 into action. It held a staff meeting a few days ago where the Constitution was carefully explained.
"As stated Friday morning, we can have respect for religion, but by federal law, cannot endorse it while acting as a school employee," Fritcher wrote in a memo shared with FFRF. "Therefore, when our students choose to participate or initiate a student-led prayer, our employees may not participate. Please remove yourself from the activity so that it cannot be assumed that you are initiating, organizing, endorsing or participating in prayer."
Fritcher clearly delineated state-church separation principles for everyone to comply with.
"It is important that you follow this directive to refrain from praying with your teams," he stated. "Courts have ruled that participation in prayer with your teams amounts to endorsement of prayer. Failure to comply with this directive could result in disciplinary action."
FFRF is glad that it provided the impetus for a constitutional tutorial.
"We don't like to single out individual staff, but public school employees need to know basic constitutional principles," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're pleased that we were the reason for a refresher course."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 27,000 members and chapters all over the country, including almost 900 and a Chicago chapter in Illinois.