When a high school football player in Tennessee suffered a severe blow during a game last September and was down on the ground for 30 minutes unable to move his legs, a local youth pastor led the crowd anxiously standing around the young man in prayer.
But that invocation — which was intended to put the crowd and the young man at ease, while also seeking divine intervention for the injured teen — sparked a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist activist group based in Wisconsin.
The group reportedly argued that the prayer, led by Bayside Baptist Church pastor Eric Dill, involved public school coaches as well as students at Central and East Ridge High School, and, thus, was held in violation of the Constitution.
Watch the prayer below:
Seeing that latter act as an endorsement of prayer, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed an official grievance with Hamilton County Schools on behalf of an anonymous man who was at the game. That man, whose name has not been released, sent a statement to WRCB-TV explaining why he chose to take the controversial step.
“I did so because federal courts have repeatedly ruled for decades that coaches cannot participate in prayer in school, and even that student led prayer at football games is unconstitutional,” he said. “I simply want faculty and staff at Hamilton County Schools to follow the law, which they currently are not doing.”
The statement continued, “Giving a minister access to students for religious purposes during a football game is indefensible.”
But Dill told WRCB-TV that he had no ill intention with his prayer, and that he doesn’t believe the coaches meant anything offensive concerning their own participation in the invocation; he added that he only prayed after he was asked by one of the players.
Watch Dill describe what unfolded below:
“It was almost dead silence about the only thing I could hear on the field was like sniffling and just players getting emotional,” the pastor said. “If I believe in a God who answers prayers, how bad do I have to hate the kid who’s injured or the player who asked or the players who are hurting not to pray?”
District officials recently responded to the complaint, pledging to offer additional trainings to staff and saying the coaches didn’t know that bowing their heads would be seen as a prayer endorsement. But the Freedom From Religion Foundation said it plans to send another letter, seeking clarification that the district believes the coaches acted unconstitutionally, according to WRCB-TV.
It should also be noted, though, that while First Amendment training will be offered to staff, Hamilton County Schools attorney Scott Bennett said the coaches in question “simply joined with their teams in the shadow of what then appeared to be a profound tragedy” and that, “rather than being an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, this was human compassion at its finest,” the Times Free Press reported.
Bennett said those involved do not believe the Constitution was violated, so it will be interesting to see how — and if — the school district responds to a potential follow-up letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
On a more positive note: The injured student reportedly made a full recovery afterward.
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