FFRF warns Alabama school district against religious promotion

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is warning an Alabama public school district to put an end to a disturbing slew of constitution violations occurring in one of its football programs, and is calling for the removal of its head football coach.

It was brought to FFRF’s attention that several instances of religious promotion have been occurring in the Davidson High School’s football program — part of Mobile County Public Schools — for several years. It has been reported that Director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for South Alabama Dennis Hayford had been a chaplain for the team for four years at the request of the team’s head coach, Fred Riley. 

“As his chaplain for four years, I had unrestricted access to practices, team meetings, coaches meetings, and travel to and from games,” Hayford said.

During Hayford’s time as the team’s chaplain, he and Riley co-founded the “Next Level” football camp, which, according to Hayford, is still in operation. “Unlike most football camps which only focus on skill development, ‘Next Level’ camp challenges them to become Godly men,” he said.

When Hayford left the position in 2008 and resigned as the Davidson High School chaplain, he claimed that Riley immediately filled the position with another religious leader for the team. Hayford is now the regional director of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), where he conducts “large events to expose young men and women to biblical principles.” He claimed that Riley brings his football team to every event.

According to Hayford, Riley has been giving him unrestricted access to Davidson High School students for religious purposes for his entire tenure. Riley has himself confirmed this, admitting that he views Davidson High as his ministry. 

“I don’t evangelize to student athletes but every opportunity I get I do put them in front of people who can,” said Riley. “We go to FCA events in the summer. We have a team chaplain. We try to create an environment outside of school that allows for those opportunities...”

Public 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 religious beliefs, because public schools may not advance or promote religion. FFRF has written to a legal firm representing the school district asking that Mobile County Public Schools commence an immediate investigation into the concerns and remove Riley as head coach of the Davidson High School football team.

“For years, Coach Riley has been using chaplains and Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ events to advance and promote his religious views to Davidson High School students,” writes FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line. “Mobile County Public Schools 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, FFRF notes, is a violation of both students’ and parents’ rights and is grounds for dismissal.

“This is a deeply alarming, flagrant violation of the First Amendment,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The district must take immediate action to remedy this grotesque infringement on its students right of conscience and ensure that no athletic program in the district allows religious leaders to have access to its students or promote religion.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members, including over 200 in Alabama. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.

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

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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