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Group alleges illegal religious practices at Chestatee High School

POSTED: August 12, 2014 6:14 p.m.

Chestatee High defensive line coach Chris Jarrell works with his linemen Tuesday during the War Eagles' practice. A humanist group has written Hall County Schools, complaining that the team's coaches are leading prayers and including Bible verses on workout sheets.

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The letter says the football coaches at the school “regularly led or participated in prayer with students” and included Bible verse references on official team documents and workout sheets.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association, claims these practices violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing a religion or favoring one religion over another. The letter also cites a number of precedents from the U.S. Supreme Court, including the Lemon v. Kurtzman ruling, which prohibits “excessive entanglement” of church and state as well as the advancement or inhibition of religion.

Gordon Higgins, spokesman for the Hall County School District, said the district will not decide how to act until it has learned more about the allegations.

“We always take matters like this very seriously, and we will investigate and take whatever action is warranted,” he said.

“Certainly adults shouldn’t be leading children in prayers to any particular religion, but one thing we will stand behind is our students’ right to prayer,” said Hall Superintendent Will Schofield, who was out of town Tuesday and had not yet seen the letter.

Higgins said the district has yet to determine whether the allegations made in the letter are correct, and whether the alleged actions would constitute a violation of the establishment clause.

Phone messages to Chestatee head football coach Bill Forman were not immediately returned Tuesday.

An association news release states the group is acting on behalf of a concerned citizen.

Included in the letter are three photographs that show the team and a coach standing in a circle while holding hands in apparent prayer, a pregame banner bearing the messages “Iron Sharpens Iron” and “Proverbs 27:17” and a workout sheet with the team logo at the top and “Gal. 6:9” in large letters at the bottom.

Schofield said religious verses may be used in schools in certain contexts.

“There certainly is no legal precedent that you can’t use a verse ... that does not promote a particular religion,” he said. “Until I know exactly what text we’re talking about, we’ll have to investigate that.”

Galatians 6:9 is a Bible verse that reads, in the New International Version, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Proverbs 27:17 reads, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

“The letter basically asks the school to cease allowing coaches and any other faculty member from leading prayer or participating in prayer, as well as remove religious references from official football team documents,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the center who is handling the case.

Miller said the center will consider a lawsuit if the school does not comply, but she said she does not expect the matter to escalate to legal action.

“I think it would be very unusual in this circumstance for them to refuse to comply,” she said. “I do hope the letter will resolve the issue, because I think it would be pretty senseless to take this to court.”

Miller said that, if there is a lawsuit, the center will seek an injunction ordering the school to cease the activity and a declaration that the practices are unconstitutional. She said the center would also seek attorney’s fees, which could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Miller said the alleged actions are unconstitutional because they endorse one religion over others, and added that students who are not part of that religion are likely to feel coerced into participating.

“There’s no way that students wouldn’t perceive their activity as support of religion, in this case Christianity,” she said.

Higgins said the district will do whatever is necessary to comply with the law.

“We are, by our duty, charged with upholding the constitutions of the United States and the state of Georgia,” he said. “ If there is a violation, we will take steps to make sure it is corrected.”

“We’ll investigate it, and if some of our folks are doing what they shouldn’t, we’ll take care of it,” Schofield said.


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