After the nation's largest atheist group pressured a Pennsylvania public high school football coach to stop praying with his team before each game, his players are vowing to continue the longstanding tradition even if that means doing so without him.
Jack Henzes, the head football coach of the undefeated Dunmore High School Bucks, has been forced to end his 30-year tradition of praying with his team before each game because of a complaint the school district received in June from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist legal group that advocates for a strict separation of church and state.
"When a public school employee acting in an official capacity organizes, leads or participates in team prayer, he effectively endorses religion on the district's behalf," the letter from FFRF to the school district's administration stated.
As FFRF claimed to be speaking on behalf of a local resident who complained about the prayer and how it's an endorsement of religion, Dunmore Superintendent John Marichak replied to the group's complaint in a letter dated Oct. 31.
"We directed coach Henzes to be sure that he should not partake in any such behavior," Marichak wrote in the letter, according to the Scranton Times-Tribune. "We also covered this with all of our personnel to be consistent and exhaustive in the upholding of the law."
In response to Marichak's letter, FFRF attorney Liz Cavell told the Times-Tribune that her organization is pleased with the action the school has taken to alleviate the situation.
"We're happy with what the school district has done and, hopefully, the constitutional boundaries will be respected going forward," Cavell said.
Coach Henzes told local news station WBRE-TV that he only prayed with his team to ask God to protect the player from injury during the games.
"We pray to the good Lord hoping none of our players, or the other players, are hurt because we know how hard they work," Henzes said, according to CBN News.
Coach Henzes was not the only one who was disappointed that he's no longer able to pray with his team before games. At least one player has spoken out publicly in support of the coach and vowed to keep the prayer tradition going.
"I'm very religious myself and I believe that it's a tradition that we need to keep it going. It's a shame that it got called off, but it is what it is," Chris Murray, a junior at Dunmore High School, told WBRE-TV.
Additionally, one of Henzes' former players, Sal Marchese, defended his former coach in an interview with WNEP.
"It's just something you're accustomed to doing every day, and coach Henzes doesn't just teach football, he teaches life lessons, and this is a life lesson I'm sure he'll teach the Bucks," Marchese said. "They will get through this, and I mean, this is really nothing but a distraction from their undefeated season."