Oklahoma School Bans Pastor From Leading Team Prayer After Atheist Group Complains

Rev. Mike Keahbone addresses the Putnam City High School football team during the 2017 season.
Rev. Mike Keahbone addresses the Putnam City High School football team during the 2017 season. | (Screenshot: Oklahoman)

An Oklahoma school district has banned a local Baptist pastor from praying with a high school football team following a complaint filed by a leading atheist legal group.

Putnam City Schools will no longer allow the Rev. Mike Keahbone of Cherokee Hills Baptist Church to lead the Putnam City High football team in prayer, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced in a news release.

Over the past two years, Keahbone has become one of the most prominent and visual supporters of the Putnam City Pirates football team as he has led an initiative to get his church community more involved to support players whose parents aren't able to go to the games themselves.

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Not only was the 45-year-old Keahbone designated to serve as the team's chaplain, he has also led the team in prayer before the start of games in the team's locker room.

In October, The Oklahoman published a feature article and video about the church's relationship with the team. The newspaper notes that Keahbone and the church have also provided pre-game meals for players.

Although many enjoy the relationships between the church and the team, at least one resident complained to the Wisconsin-based FFRF.

FFRF advocates for a strict separation of church and state and regularly pressures school districts and government entities to halt any type of Christian or Jewish practice that could be construed as a government entanglement of religion.

FFRF legal fellow Christopher Line sent a letter to Putnam City Schools Superintendent Fred Rhodes in early February arguing that Keahbone's act of leading the public school football team in prayer before games violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

"Public school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain because public schools may not advance or promote religion," Line wrote. "Similarly, it is illegal for a public school or school-appointed volunteer to organize, sponsor or lead prayers at public school athletic events."

Line cited the United States Supreme Court's 2000 ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which holds that student-led prayer over the loudspeaker before games is unconstitutional.

Line also contended that Putnam City Schools must not allow a "non-school adult" to have access to students to proselytize.

Last Friday, FFRF reported that Putnam City Schools responded to its letter.

The response indicated that the school district launched an investigation and admitted that Keahbone was granted access to locker rooms to pray with the team.

The school district reportedly assured that new procedures have been installed and that the athletic staff have been told to immediately cease the practice of allowing access to pray with the team.

The Christian Post reached out to both Cherokee Hills Baptist Church and Putnam City Schools for comment. Responses are pending.

"We're pleased that the school district has taken corrective action to honor their students' rights of conscience and create a more inclusive atmosphere," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement.

According to The Oklahoman, Keahbone's notable relationships with the football team began before the 2016 season. It started when Keahbone was told that there were some players on the team who would not have parents coming to their games.

That was an experience that Keahbone knew all too well when he was an offensive lineman for his high school football team.

"It broke my heart. It made me flashback to my childhood and how I felt and I don't want other kids to feel how I felt," Keahbone told The Oklahoman. "When I was growing up, I didn't have a dad in my life and my mom was an alcoholic and she didn't come to my games. She did come on senior night but that was about it. You get used to it, but it hurt."

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