A Georgia high school football team and its fans continued a team prayer tradition before their game last Friday night after the team's coaches were recently banned by the school district from praying with students.
Local news affiliates reported that immediately after players on the East Coweta High School football team rushed onto the field before their game against archrival Newnan High School, they gathered in a huddle facing the hometown crowd and bowed their heads in communal prayer.
According to Atlanta's Fox 5, head coach John Small, who had made it a tradition to participate in prayer with his teams before and after games, nor any other coaches and volunteers were allowed to join the team prayer this time around.
As previously reported, a recent memorandum drafted by Coweta County School System's lawyer at the request of Superintendent Steve Barker and shared with staff throughout the system last week states that "representatives of the school cannot participate in any student initiated/student led prayer or worship while acting in their official capacity."
The guidance was issued following a complaint by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, a legal organization that advocates for a strict separation of church and state. The FFRF complaint centered on the fact that Small was seen on video putting his hand on a player's shoulder and bowing his head during a team prayer.
FFRF argues that coach participation in team prayer is tantamount to a government endorsement of religion and is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
"Students have every right for student-led and student-initiated prayer in our schools. But, there are pretty clear limits as to the role of employees," Coweta County School System Superintendent Steve Barker told Fox 5.
According to Fox5 and Atlanta's CBS46, several parents and members of the Coweta community are not too happy with the school district's decision to issue the memorandum.
"If you feel the coach is leading the prayer, I could understand the separation of church and state, but what's to say he can't take a knee and have one of his players stand up and pray?" Brian Pace, a parent of an East Coweta football player, asked in an interview with Fox 5.
An unnamed male Coweta community member told CBS46 that "those people need to leave us alone and let us do what we need to do."
"Without God, we don't have nothing," the middle-aged Coweta man told the news outlet.
CBS46 reporter Dante Renzulli stated that when talking to folks at last Friday's game, he couldn't find "a single person who was happy about the decision."
"Anybody who wants to pray should be able to pray. There is no forcing going on," another Coweta resident told the news crew.
Although it was initially believed that Small had been leading his team in prayer, Coweta County Schools Information Officer Dean Jackson told The Newnan Times-Herald that the team prayers had previously been led by volunteer "community coaches."
"Community coaches would not be any different in my opinion," Barker told the Newnan-Times Herald.