Naperville Central High School's head football coach no longer will lead prayers with his players at games after Freedom From Religion Foundation staffers sent a letter of complaint. Representatives of the northern Illinois school district agreed on Thursday to stop allowing the football coach to do so. The issue arose when a concerned resident reportedly complained to the foundation about the matter.
On Dec. 8, Ryan Jayne, a legal fellow for the foundation, sent a letter to Naperville Superintendent Dan Bridges, citing that football coach Mark Stine's conduct is "unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee. Certainly he represents the school and the team when he acts in his official role as head coach of the Redhawks."
On Dec. 10, Bridges responded to the foundation and agreed that coaches should not lead prayers, but said "a voluntary prayer intended for a moment of reflection" was what was being offered.
"Naperville Community Unit School District 203 is aware that a coach-led prayer is not appropriate," Bridges wrote. "The head football coach has been instructed that neither he nor his staff may lead his players in prayer."
Jayne then decided that it was unclear if the superintendent meant the football coach would no longer participate at all in team prayers, or whether he meant the coach would no longer lead the prayers. So Jayne sent another letter to Bridges to state they believed the coach should not be involved at all in the prayers.
"It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of students," Jayne wrote. "Students are welcome to pray on their own, but school representatives must not participate."
Bridges has not yet responded to that most recent letter, according to foundation managers.
Jayne maintains that the foundation's stance is that students have the right to pray on their own, but contends coach Stine has "groomed" students to engage in worship as an official part of a school activity.
Redhawks' football players issued a letter of support for the coach. "We, as a football team and a family, give Coach Stine our full support," the letter reads, according to the foundation.
"He is the best coach in the state and cares about each and every one of us more than any other coach cares about his players. We are proud that he is willing to stand up for his faith and for the example he sets for us."
The foundation then issued a statement after the team praised Stine as "willing to stand up for his faith," because Jayne indicates "a public school coach should pray or promote religion on his own time and dime, and shouldn't misuse his authority to promote his personal religious views upon public school athletes."
"Public schools exist to educate, not indoctrinate," Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said. "This 'tradition' is illegal, coercive and divisive. FFRF fully supports a student's right to their own personal religious beliefs, and to pray on their own. We are confident a coach who cares about every student on the team will understand why it crosses the line to pray with students."
This foundation is a national nonprofit with nearly 23,000 members, including more than 700 in Illinois and a local chapter, FFRF Metropolitan Chicago.