ACLU Sues Ohio School District Over Football Team Prayers

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
June 28, 1999 12:00 am

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COLUMBUS, OH — Asking the federal court to end an eight-year history of religious indoctrination directed at student athletes, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio today filed suit against the London City School District in United States District Court in Columbus.

Named as defendants in the suit are school officials and three high school football coaches, including controversial head football coach David Daubenmire, whose outspoken mixture of religion and athletics has been the source of controversy in London for more than a year.

Acting on behalf of seven district residents, the ACLU asked the court to issue an injunction against Daubenmire and assistant coaches Norm Emmets and Mark Collier, prohibiting them from preaching sermons to, or orchestrating prayer among student athletes.

The ACLU was sharply critical of the district and its permissive attitude toward religious indoctrination.

“The school district has tolerated this textbook violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause for far too long,” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari.

“Questions of faith are among the most private of life decisions,” he added. “They are too important, and too sacred, to be left to overbearing government employees, however well-intentioned.”

Legal papers filed in court today describe an eight-year period during which coaches delivered lengthy religious sermons to students, coordinated student prayer, pressured students to join a particular local church, and conducted mandatory prayer sessions before and after football games.

While some of the more exotic conduct — coaches speaking in tongues and laying their hands on injured athletes in an attempt at spiritual healing — may have abated in the last year, sworn statements filed today indicate that coaches orchestrated and led student prayer during the 1998 football season, despite contrary statements from school officials.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government agencies, including public schools, from either advancing or prohibiting religion.

“By knowingly allowing Daubenmire, Collier and Emmets to proselytize student athletes, the school district has adopted a policy of favoring one set of religious beliefs over another, or none at all,” said ACLU of Ohio Volunteer Attorney John Marshall, a Columbus lawyer with fifteen years of experience in federal court. “That violates the Establishment Clause. It is not even a close case.”

What is required, said Marshall, is “strict neutrality on the part of the state, so that individuals can answer the call of their conscience free from governmental pressure.”

The United States Supreme Court declared teacher led prayer in public schools unconstitutional in 1963.

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