A school district is under attack by atheists after an anti-Christian group filed a virulent complaint against a Tennessee school system because its staff bowed their heads while a youth pastor prayed for a seriously injured high school football player down on the field.
When the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) caught wind of coaches bowing their heads while an adult got down on his knees to pray for an injured player on the field, it filed a complaint against the district that includes East Ridge High School and Central High School.
Need permission to pray?
Pastor Eric Dill of Bayside Baptist Church insists that his intention was solely to help the injured player – not to make anyone feel uncomfortable, make a religious statement, for recognition or to get 25,000 Facebook views – which were triggered from FFRF’s complaint.
Dill came to the aid of a player who was down on the field for nearly half an hour after receiving a hard blow to the neck that made him unable to move his legs while waiting for an ambulance.
"A neck injury is the scariest part of football," the youth pastor told WRCB TV, adding that when a player asked him to pray, he merely submitted to God’s will. "It was almost dead silence … about the only thing I could hear on the field was like sniffling, and just players getting emotional."
He insisted that he cannot ignore his divine calling to ask for God’s healing on behalf of an injured child.
"If I believe in a God who answers prayers, how bad [do] I have to hate the kid who's injured or the player who asked or the players who are hurting not to pray?" Dill pondered. "I'm going to be respectful and I'm going to be considerate. I'm not going to force my myself or my faith. God doesn't force Himself on people, but if a student asks me, 'Eric pray for this' – especially in something like this – I'm going to pray."
Praying and proselytizing the same thing?
Hamilton County Schools attorney Scott Bennett argues that the coaches who bowed their heads in silence during Dill’s prayer were in no way participating in the establishment of religion for their schools – maintaining that they were only joining in out of respect and concern for the student with a potentially life-threatening injury.
“[The coaches] simply joined with their teams in the shadow of what then appeared to be a profound tragedy," Bennett argued, according to the local television station. "Rather than being an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, this was human compassion at its finest."
Seeing prayer as an unlawful act by any school personnel, the man attending the game who anonymously filed the complaint contends that the coaches were out of line.
"I did so because federal courts have repeatedly ruled for decades that coaches cannot participate in prayer in school, and even that student-led prayer at football games is unconstitutional,” the complainant wrote in a statement. “I simply want faculty and staff at Hamilton County Schools to follow the law, which they currently are not doing. Giving a minister access to students for religious purposes during a football game is indefensible."
Even though no other complaints were filed against the district over the matter, the district felt compelled to educate staff members after the incident to avoid future problems.
“The school system responded to the complaint Monday saying additional training will take place,” WRCB’s Natalie Potts reported. “Central's Principal says coaches did not realize that bowing their heads in silence was an endorsement. He says they were simply doing it out of respect for the injured student.”
Dill is confident that the coaches in question – just like himself – only had the injured player’s well-being in mind.
"Those coaches would never do anything to jeopardize their influence or care over those students,” the Christian youth leader assured. “They would never do anything intentional to do that. They're not perfect and I'm not a perfect person, but they care for and love those players as much as they can."
The praying pastor impressed that he respects those who hold to beliefs other than his own, and at the same time, he hopes that others extend the same courtesy. And he does not want this legal episode to be a divisive matter.
"The person who made the complaint and the Freedom from Religion Foundation are not the enemy, and so we need to make sure that our words and the thoughts that we post and the things we say in this conversation verbalize that ... they are not the enemy," Dill expressed.
Despite the community backlash, FFRF is not backing off its fight to remove any semblance of Christianity from the schools.
“A spokesperson for the Freedom From Religion Foundation says the group is happy school officials investigated the situation, but she says they are still concerned that school officials have yet to acknowledge that the coaches participation in the prayer was unconstitutional,” the Tennessee station informed. “The group plans to send a follow-up letter to the school system later this week.”
In response to the allegations, those within the school system insist that they are fully aware of what is appropriate and lawful while at work.
“School officials say they understand that they are not to endorse any particular religious practice – including student led prayer – and they do not believe that any boundaries were violated in this situation, but additional training will be provided to school employees,” Potts announced.
It was also noted that FFRF is has been busy throughout the Volunteer State pushing its mission to eradicate Christianity from the public schools.
“This isn't the first time the topic has been brought up in our area,” Potts added. “Multiple schools in the Tennessee Valley, including Marion County and Ridgeland High Schools have been asked by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to stop public prayer at football games.”