One of America's largest secular legal organizations is pressuring a Mississippi college football coach to end the team's tradition of praying before and after each practice, suggesting that having coach-led prayer at a public college is unconstitutional.
The East Mississippi Community College football team, which was featured on the 2016 Netflix documentary series "Last Chance U," has come under fire from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist legal group which claims that the coach is "domineering" and "calls into question whether the players' participation can be considered voluntary."
As the Netflix series showcased the EMCC Lions in their unsuccessful quest to win their fourth-straight National Junior College Athletic Association National Football Championship in 2015, the EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens was shown regularly leading his team in the Lord's Prayer.
It was not only Stephens who led prayers. One episode of the series showed assistant coach Marcus Wood leading a prayer before a game. Another episode of the series began with Wood holding a Bible and discussing a verse from the book of Job. FFRF asserts that Wood also leads a weekly Bible study for players.
In a letter sent to the school's president, Thomas Huebner, last Wednesday, FFRF staff attorney Sam Grover demanded that the school take action to ensure that all college-sponsored activities, including football practices and games, do not include any endorsement of religion.
Grover argued that the coaches' endorsement of Christianity violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
"Even if the prayers and Bible studies were strictly voluntary, the fact would not alter the unconstitutionality of the practice," Grover's letter states. "Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation."
"EMCC should be particularly sensitive to respecting the rights and conscience of the nonreligious and religious minorities, given that the college serves the least religious population in the country: 1-in-3 college aged Americans (18-29) are non religious and about 44 percent are non-Christian," the letter adds.
Along with the team prayer and Bible study, FFRF took issue with the fact that Stephens proclaimed that faith "is the foundation of our program."
"We start our practices with prayer [and] end our practices with prayer," FFRF quoted the coach as saying during the Netflix series.
Grover's letter asked the school for a response explaining the actions it plans on taking to alleviate its concerns. However, the school has not yet responded to Grover's letter.
In an email sent to The Christian Post Tuesday, Stephens wrote that the school does not immediately have plans to issue a public statement regarding the letter from FFRF.
"Last Chance U" has been renewed by Netflix and season two of the series will again feature EMCC, according to entertainment media outlets.
The prayer controversy at EMCC comes after high school football coach Joe Kennedy was fired from his position at Bremerton High School in Washington State last year because of his tradition of kneeling down to pray on the field after games.