Atheist group stops coach-led prayer at Kansas schools

Teams from Cheylin and Weskan pray at a basketball game in January.
Teams from Cheylin and Weskan pray at a basketball game in January. Courtesy of

A group that advocates for separation of church and state recently announced that it had stopped coach-led prayer at two school districts in western Kansas.

Prayers are common at athletic games in Kansas, some coaches say, but school employees must not be involved in them.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which describes itself as a voice for atheism, agnosticism and skepticism, sent a letter in mid-June to Cheylin USD 103 and Weskan Schools USD 242 saying it is illegal for public school coaches to lead their teams in prayer.

The letter said basketball players from Cheylin High School, in Bird City, and Weskan High School prayed together after a game in January, with both coaches participating in the prayer.

Dave Hale, superintendent of Weskan, said in an e-mail that there was no coach-led prayer at the game.

“They are misleading you,” Hale wrote. “It was 100% student driven. I will tell my coaches to not be in the vicinity in the future but never have my coaches instigated, encouraged, or led these prayers.”

The coaches were in the circle with heads bowed but did not speak, Hale said.

The foundation received a complaint from someone in Kansas, said Chris Line, Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow at the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The foundation, based in Wisconsin, fights prayer in schools, religious displays such as nativity scenes on government property and privately owned businesses offering discounts for bringing in a church bulletin.

According to a news release from the foundation, Superintendent Allaire Homburg responded by writing, “You have my assurance that this will not happen again.”

Homburg did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Line said Hale contacted the foundation Thursday to let it know that Weskan coaches would be advised not to participate in or encourage post-game prayer.

“We now consider this entire matter to be satisfactorily resolved,” Line said in an e-mail.

In its letter to the Cheylin school district, the foundation referenced Supreme Court decisions such as Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, when the court ruled that a school district’s policy of allowing student-led, student-initiated prayer over an intercom at football games was unconstitutional.

The court also ruled that “nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday.”

Prayer at athletic events

Prayers at games have been around since Brandon Clark, who coaches football at Derby, played sports himself.

“It’s been a part of (athletics), and there’s ways you can go about it and there’s ways you can’t go about it just because of the rules that are in place,” Clark said. “We don’t all have the same faith and beliefs, and as a coach you can’t put your faith or beliefs on your players, but it (prayer) can be student led.”

Clark’s team often prays before a game or occasionally with the opposing team. The prayers are led by students. Clark says he has never led a prayer.

The National Federation of State High School Associations advises in an article that “student-athletes acting on their own, without any involvement of the school or its personnel, may engage in prayer or religious activity. Members of a team may, therefore, spontaneously decide to take a knee in the locker room for a pre-game prayer or gather on the field for a post-game prayer or engage in other religious activity solely as individuals acting privately.”

Schools should ensure that coaches and other school personnel “remain detached from student religious activities,” the federation says.

‘Don’t want to force anyone’

Ron Russell, cross country and track and field coach at Northwest High in Wichita, said he used to see much more prayer in schools.

He used to lead prayers for students but stopped after he and other school employees were advised by district lawyers not to be involved. He said he knows of other coaches who also stopped leading prayers in the past several years.

His team still has student-led prayers before practice, but Russell said he spends the time doing other work.

The same goes for a prayer group that used to meet at the City League track and field meet. Coaches were advised that students couldn’t use the intercom for the prayer and that coaches shouldn’t participate, but students continued to get together spontaneously to pray.

“We don’t want to force anyone to do anything they don’t feel comfortable with, they don’t want to participate in,” Russell said.

He understands why he can’t participate in prayer with students, but Russell said he wishes he could.

“Most of the coaches and people I’ve talked to have been very in favor of the prayer,” Russell said. “I don’t think it hurts anybody by having a simple prayer.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess