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.”
“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.”
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.”