For faculty at public schools, there is a fine line between the right to express personal religious belief and the need to respect the range of beliefs held by students.
Where that line lies, as Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield put it, is “the $64,000 question.”
On Tuesday, a humanist group sent a letter to the district asking it to put a stop to alleged religious practices by faculty at Chestatee High School football games and practices.
The district has not completed an investigation into whether the allegations — including one that coaches either led team members in prayer or participated in prayer with them — are true, but Schofield has acknowledged faculty should not be leading students in prayer during school events.
Faculty does, however, have the right to practice free speech. It’s the line between that right and the right of students not to have a religion imposed upon them by their public school that can be difficult to trace. The personal rights of faculty change when they are practicing their roles as authority figures.
There are two main principles, which have been established in court cases, behind restrictions on the expression of religion by faculty: endorsement and coercion.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that promotes the expression of religious beliefs, cites these principles in its handbook for student religious rights.
“The first is a concern that the school will appear to endorse the teacher’s religious views,” the handbook states. “Courts have held that, simply because of the teacher’s position in the school, ‘a teacher’s speech can be taken as directly and deliberately representative of the school.’”
The handbook also addresses the issue of coercion, saying, “The second concern is that because teachers give grades and coaches evaluate athletes, the sharing of religious beliefs by teachers and coaches could have a coercive effect on the students.”
In other words, it could lead students to believe that preferential treatment will be given to students who share their teachers’ or coaches’ religious views.
Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which sent the letter about religious practices at Chestatee, also cited these principles during a phone interview Tuesday.
“The main issue is that students should not be subject to seeing their school endorse religion,” she said, later adding, “There is also a coercion element here, too.”
If authority figures in the school pray during school, she said, students may feel pressured to do so as well.
The Alliance Defending Freedom handbook, which is distributed at schools by groups including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, also addresses the issue of coaches leading prayer at games.
“Since coaches are employees of the school, they may not lead prayer at either practices or games,” the handbook says. “This could create an appearance of school endorsement, because coaches represent the school to the athletes during these times. In addition, athletes may feel compelled to participate in the religious activity.”
“The general guideline for teachers or coaches is relatively straightforward: When they are on the job, they are acting and speaking as government agents, so they should not be participating in any religious activities such as group prayers,” David Niose, legal director for the humanist association’s legal center, said in a written statement.
“Students have the right to pray together under certain conditions,” Niose added, “but teachers and coaches who are on the job do not belong in such activities.”
While it’s been established that faculty leading students in prayer can be seen as an endorsement of religion by the school, some issues are murkier.
The letter from the humanist association cited an official team workout log and a pregame banner that contained prominent references to Bible verses.
While the association letter said these constitute a school endorsement of religion, Schofield said there are some cases where quotations from religious scriptures do not necessarily promote that religion. He said the district has not yet determined if that was the case with the Bible references in question.
Students, however, have the right to pray together during school events, as long as the activity is initiated and led by students, not faculty. Teachers also have the right to engage in religious practices with one another when students are not there, according to the handbook.
“Teachers might not be leading prayers with their students, but teachers and other employees do have the right to live out their faith in a variety of ways,” Schofield said. “There’s an awful lot of areas where there really aren’t any clear, definitive answers. ... Probably the most important thing is the almost unlimited rights of students.”
Schofield said students have the right to pray, read religious materials, form religious clubs and otherwise express their religious beliefs.
He said this freedom applies to students of all religious beliefs or lack thereof, and he added that the district strives to respect the beliefs of all of its students.
“Foundational to our country is a respect for individual beliefs,” he said.
Schofield also urged communication.
“If you come forward and have an open conversation, then you can usually handle the vast majority of these issues,” he said.
Schofield said the district is not currently placing a focus on the religious practice issue and has not completed its investigation into the allegations. He said the district is currently focused on coordinating the first week of school.
“It has not risen to our No. 1 priority,” he said.
Chestatee High School Principal Suzanne Jarrard and Head Football Coach Bill Forman could not be reached for comment. All calls to the school were referred to district officials.