Two teams of basketball players — fifth- and sixth-grade girls — formed a circle at center court, held hands, bowed heads and prayed.
There was nothing wrong with that. Nothing illegal. Nothing unconstitutional.
Had it not been for Scott Spahr.
But Spahr, the coach of the Morristown Elementary School team, joined in the prayer circle.
And more than 500 miles away, a Washington, D.C.-based humanist organization saw a photo of that prayer circle and began crafting a letter.
Spahr was put on notice by the American Humanist Association — whose motto is “Good Without a God” — as was the district, Shelby Eastern Schools: Coach-led prayer circles are an endorsement of religious activity at a public institution, and the practice must be stopped.
“It was perceived the coach was coercing these students,” said Shelby Eastern Superintendent Robert Evans. “I would say that was never the case. But a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Spahr said the players asked to pray, as they do at every game, a practice that has taken place for years.
AHA said whose idea it was doesn’t matter.
“This is really not an issue that is debatable. The law on this area is quite clear. Coaches and teachers are government actors at the time when on the job,” said David Niose, legal director with AHA. “They cannot promote or endorse a particular religious view.”
The letter from AHA was sent last week to Morristown Elementary Principal John Corn and Waldron Elementary Principal Christy Merchant, both in the Shelby Eastern district — and the two teams that played and prayed that night.
School officials started discussing. The school board got involved. Evans contemplated the law.
“The question is did (Spahr) remain neutral? So this coach is there and he may or may not have been leading the prayer,” said Evans. “But he was standing there. It was a gray enough area.”
Gray enough that school officials went to Spahr to ask him what he thought.
“The coach graciously agreed he would step away,” Evans said. Spahr was not disciplined in any way and will continue to coach. “I appreciate Scott not wanting this to be a distraction for (the teams).”
Niose said he appreciated how the district handled the letter.
“The school’s response could not have been better,” he said. “They immediately acknowledged the violation. In fact, they thanked us for pointing out the problem.”
Evans denies there was any acknowledgement of a violation, and Spahr couldn’t be reached for comment. But he has been writing about the incident on his Facebook page, where the prayer circle photo is now Spahr’s cover photo.
“Our kids were so excited to invite the lady Mohawks to join us (in prayer),” Spahr said on Facebook. “But never thought this would happen.”
FAR FROM ALONE
Sports teams nationwide — including at many Indiana high schools — can be found praying. Inside locker rooms, on the field after games, on buses before games.
“I don’t know a school team that doesn’t have a group of kids that pray, whether it’s well known, or in secret,” said Sarah Kramer Smith on the SES (Shelby Eastern Schools) Parent Committee Facebook page. “Why are we punishing and taking away the rights of a majority to satisfy the minority? Let’s focus on more important issues in our schools that truly need attention.”
Smith is among dozens of Shelby County parents who came out in support of Spahr, saying the only reason prayer became an issue is because one person complained.
Niose said “a concerned citizen” alerted his organization to the photo of the prayer circle.
“If students want to pray before a game, let them,” wrote Mango Esters on the SES page. “If they don’t want to, then that’s fine too.”
While students have every right to pray in groups on their own, a coach shouldn’t be involved, Niose said, citing the separation of church and state.
He points to the second half of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which “inherently prohibits the government from preferring any one religion over another.”
“If that’s difficult for people to understand, just imagine a Muslim teacher or a Muslim coach leading Muslim prayers at center court,” said Niose. “I’m sure parents would be up in arms, or some would anyway.”
A high school football coach in Washington learned in October how much controversy a praying coach could create. Joe Kennedy, an assistant coach at Bremerton High in the Seattle area, prayed with players after games. He was put on administrative leave after refusing to stop the practice after school officials told him to.
“While the district appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the football program, Kennedy’s conduct poses a genuine risk that the district will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others,” the Bremerton School District posted on its website.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 affirmed a ban on school-sponsored prayer. In 2009, it refused to hear New Jersey football coach Marcus Borden’s challenge to a federal appeals court ruling that Borden’s practice of bowing his head and taking a knee during team prayer was an endorsement of religious activity at a public school.
The Indiana High School Athletic Association does not have a rule about coaches leading prayer. The organization’s only rule along similar lines states, “There shall be no oral prayers delivered over the public address system or initiated by the host school, at the IHSAA tournament events.”
But if a prayer is completely voluntary, Micah Clark said, he sees no problem with a coach joining his players.
“Tolerance is a two-way street. Where is the tolerance here that should be shown toward people who voluntarily want to gather and pray before a game?” said Clark, head of the American Family Association of Indiana. “Simply because a person is a student or a coach on the grounds of a public school doesn’t mean that they lose their freedom of speech, religion or association.”
Shelby Eastern School Board President Jason Redd said students will certainly not be losing their freedom to pray just because the coaches stop.
Proof came Monday night at a seventh-grade girls basketball game at Morristown, when the team and its opponent, Anderson Preparatory Academy, prayed on the court together, he said.
“The students will continue to pray,” Redd said. “It’s not going to go away.”
Follow Star sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow.