Every year since 2012 Palm Coast United Methodist Church hosts “Football Sunday”services in late August, an event coinciding with the beginning of the school year and the annual “potato bowl” matching up Flagler Palm Coast High School’s and Matanzas High School’s football teams. Both teams, their coaches, cheerleaders and bands are invited and, at times encouraged by school officials, most team members show up. But so do members of other regional teams, as was the case with the attendance of the Bethune-Cookman University football team this year.
“Football Sunday” is a set of religious services, with prayers, music, singing and worship, led this year by Pastor Kevin James Sr., but also featuring the participation of the likes of James Tager, the superintendent, and the principals of the two high schools–Tom Russell and Jeff Reaves. (James somehow had access to the field during the “potato bowl,” raising other pastors’ eyebrows over the special treatment.)
Those services took place two days before a pastor opened a Flagler County School Board meeting with a prayer for the first time since the early 1970s, triggering a months-long controversy that the school board put to rest just two weeks ago, when a majority of board members decided to stick with current custom–no prayers at school board meetings–to avoid any possibility of causing further controversy.
That was not the end of the school board’s challenges over religious issues. On Nov. 19, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Madison, Wis.-cased national non-profit that advocates for the separation of church and state, issued a letter to Flagler School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin calling the district’s participation in “Football Sunday” a “serious constitutional violation.”
“It is illegal for school administrators and coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with their students, including team visits to a church for a religious sermon,” the foundation’s Christopher Line, a staff attorney, wrote Gavin after quoting FPC head football coach Travis Roland speaking of his role inviting students to the event: “I was raised in a Christian household and we can’t preach religion in high school,” Roland was quoted as saying in a News-Journal article, “but this opportunity to invite them to come to church gives them the opportunity to hear the word. As a Christian man, I’ve done my job by at least giving them the open invitation.”
“School officials may not use their position as public school employees to give religious leaders unique access to students,” Line continued. “We request written assurances that the District will take appropriate corrective action to remedy this serious constitutional violation.” It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, or lead religious activities, including at public high school athletic events, the letter continues, citing numerous court cases, two of them federal cases prohibiting the participation of coaches in their students’ religious activities. The difference between those cases and “Football Sunday,” however, was that the coaches in the federal cases were conducting their religious activities during school-sanctioned activities. “Football Sunday” is not associated with the school district, though its participants are overwhelmingly school district students and employees. Roland’s invitation to students could not be separated from his role as their coach.
The district responded to the foundation’s letter with a statement today, issued by spokesman Jason Wheeler, that claimed the foundation “paint a less-than-complete picture.”
“[N]o one from Flagler Schools, from administrators to students, is required or forced to attend. A simple invitation is extended to both high school’s football teams, cheer squads, and bands,” the statement said. “The schools do not organize transportation to or from the service in question. No one is pressured to attend and extra benefits are not extended to those who attend, nor is anyone criticized if they choose not to attend. It should also be noted that Palm Coast United Methodist Church is one of the largest Protestant congregations in Flagler County and as such, many of our administrators, teachers, and students regularly attend this church.” Tager is a member of that church.
The statement does not address Roland’s type of involvement, nor does it address the fact that district employees, including Tager and coaches, play active roles at the worship service, in front of their students. “We do agree with the FFRF,” the district’s statement went on, referring to the foundation, “that this should be discontinued if the Flagler Schools students and employees were forced to attend or if it was organized by the District or the schools involved. That is simply not the case here. Flagler Schools respects the rights of everyone to worship as they see fit and to NOT worship if that is their choice.”
The statement sought to make a distinction between school-sponsored religious events, which “Football Sunday” clearly is not, and events where school personnel participate with students, at times in leading roles, in religious events off campus and without district sponsorship, which “Football Sunday” clearly is. But court cases have addressed that distinction as well: “Even if coaches and staff aren’t forcing students to attend a church service, ‘[a] school risks violation of the Establishment Clause if any of its teachers’ activities gives the impression that the school endorses religion.'” the foundation contends in its letter, citing a 1999 case.
That case’s parallels with “Football Sunday” appear tenuous, however: it was centered on a teacher who used religion as part of his instructional program and refused to follow school district directives to stop doing so even after being disciplined: the teacher went on to present religious-based themes to autistic children. The case more relevant to “Football Sunday” was, however, cited in that 1999 opinion: “whether he is in the classroom or outside of it during contract time, [a public school teacher] is not just any ordinary citizen. He is a teacher…. He is clothed with the mantle of one who imparts knowledge and wisdom. His expressions of opinion are all the more believable because he is a teacher. The likelihood of high school students equating his views with those of the school is substantial.”
The foundation’s letter addressed that perception–which the school district’s statement did not: “The promotion of religious views by school staff turns any non-believing and non-Christian students into outsiders at their own school. This is especially problematic in the context of athletics, given the pressure players feel to conform to coaches’ expectations so as to not lose favor with the coaches or hurt their playing time.”
The foundation requested that the Flagler district investigate and take action to address its concerns, instructing Tager and other leaders and school employees involved in “Football Sunday” “they may not organize, promote, or participate in religious activities with students while acting in their capacity as school officials.” The foundation is awaiting a written reply. The school board and Gavin were in a retreat this morning, and the district did not immediately respond regarding whether its response to the foundation had been issued. Letters of the sort are often precursors to legal action when matters under challenge are not addressed.
“Football Sunday” is not the only religious event that annually involves students and staff on a large scale at a particular church. Santa Maria del Mar, the Catholic church, annually organizes a “Baccalaureate” service at the Flagler Beach church. In what appears to be a clear violation of law, Flagler Palm Coast High School’s Facebook page not only advertised the event, but directed students as to how to dress, establishing a direct connection between the event and the district and making the district’s authority explicit: “Seniors are to wear their Cap and Gown, as well as any medallions and honor cords, to this event.” Nowhere in the announcement, which was repeated twice in one week, does it state that the event is voluntary, and it linked back to the district’s school web page.