EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Reitz High School football coach Andy Hape’s prayer with his team after a game broke constitutional religious laws, says a national separation of church and state advocacy group.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation called it a “serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment” and wants the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. to investigate Hape.
An EVSC spokesman said the school district supports those who stand with students during student-led prayer.
It started with a photo published Oct. 20 in the Courier & Press Westside edition, which goes to West Side subscribers. Hape has his head tilted down with his eyes closed. The photo also shows some team members with their hands on his shoulder. The caption states, “Reitz Head Coach Andy Hape prays with his team after their 49-46 win over the Mater Dei Wildcats.” The photo was also published in a Courier & Press photo gallery online after the game.
An unidentified local resident saw the photo in the newspaper and reported it to the national organization. The person also told the group Hape and several of his assistant coaches regularly promote religion to students.
“It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer, participate in student prayers, or to otherwise promote religion to students,” the group’s attorney, Ryan Jayne states in a letter sent to the EVSC last week.
“When public school employees acting in their official capacities organize and advocate for a team prayer, they effectively endorse religion on the district’s behalf,” Jayne wrote.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nonprofit based out of Madison, Wisconsin that promotes atheism, agnosticism and separation of church and state. The group reports having 30,000 members, including 450 in Indiana.
He asked for an investigation and to ensure that Reitz coaches not pray with students during the EVSC athletic programs or for coaches to use their position to promote religion.
EVSC spokesman Jason Woebkenberg confirmed the district received the letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
EVSC attorneys are reviewing the letter, Woebkenberg said.
“Please know student-led prayer is acceptable at any of our schools, and we stand by those who stand with our students during student-led prayer,” he said in an email Tuesday morning.
EVSC staff do have some restrictions on religious activity.
“Corporation staff shall not use prayer, religious readings, or religious symbols as a devotional exercise or in an act of worship or celebration,” the EVSC policy on religious ceremonies and observances states.
“The rights of the minority, no matter how small, must be protected,” according to district rules. “No matter how well intended, either official or unofficial sponsorship of religiously-orientated activities by the school are offensive to some and tend to supplant activities which should be an exclusive province of individual religious groups, churches, private organizations, or the family.”
Metropolitan School District of Mount Vernon Superintendent Tom Kopatich doesn’t think Reitz is the only school to have teams gather before or after a game.
Kopatich said he often sees most teams – both Mount Vernon and the schools they play – convene.
“I’m not sure what they do,” he said. “But it’s sad that it’s coming to that place that we’re trying to eliminate that. People have to realize, if you don’t want to be there or you don’t want to participate in something of that nature, you don’t have to. It’s a choice.”
In the mid-90s, when Kopatich was named Mount Vernon High School’s basketball coach, he recalled reciting the “Our Father,” also known as “The Lord’s Prayer,” with his team before and after games.
Most of the time, he said, players led prayer.
Kopatich said he was reminded then that coaches aren’t supposed to lead prayer.
“The only thing I had was my athletic director came to me and said, ‘You need to be careful if you’re leading prayer. Just be very careful with that.’ … That was my very first year, and I coached several years, and we did it all the way through,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything else.”
That was about 23 years ago.
Now, as superintendent, Kopatich said the only situation he recalls was a couple of years ago when a group used an elementary school after school hours. He said an outside agency, possibly the same that sent the letter to the EVSC, claimed it appeared that the school district promoted the group, when Kopatich said they just provided a facility.
Mount Vernon also has a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) club, which is up to the decision of students if they sign up.
”I’ve never had anybody come to me,” Kopatich said. “I’ve never had any community member, I’ve never had any parent, I’ve never had anyone come to me and tell me they had a concern.”
It’s a tough situation, according to Kopatich.
“I don’t mind saying that I’m a Christian,” he said. “More than anything else, I was sort of saddened because I think in leadership roles there are all types of role models. I just think it’s sad that it’s happening.”