Naperville Central coach told he can't lead players in prayer

Two days after receiving a letter from a group that represents atheists and seeks to defend the separation of church and state, Naperville Unit District 203 officials have told Naperville Central High School head football coach Mike Stine that he cannot lead his players in prayer.

The complaint was filed after some players and coaches were seen praying before their Nov. 14 playoff loss to Waubonsie Valley in Aurora.

Superintendent Dan Bridges reviewed the complaint and “determined that a voluntary prayer intended as a moment of reflection was offered,” according to a statement released Thursday by a district spokeswoman.

“We are aware that a coach-led prayer is not appropriate,” the statement read. “The head football coach has been instructed that neither he nor his staff may lead his players in prayer. This message has been communicated to the athletic directors at both high schools to ensure that this expectation is shared with coaches of all sports at all levels.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation was contacted by a local member of the Madison, Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization about Naperville Central personnel, including Stine, praying with student-athletes at football games. The foundation also sent pictures taken by Naperville photographer David Neesley that apparently show coaches praying with players on bended knee at the Nov. 14 game, a 17-0 loss for the Redhawks.

Stine did not immediately return phone messages Thursday.

While the foundation credited district officials for a “prompt investigation and response,” attorney Ryan Jayne said in a letter Thursday their assurances do “not go far enough.”

Courts have held that public school employees are prohibited not just from leading students in religious activities but also from participating, Jayne argued.

“Students are welcome to pray on their own, but school representatives must not participate,” he wrote.

Students voluntarily praying on their own without coercion passes muster, said Harold Krent, dean and professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

But if a coach “just does his sort of prayer thing quietly at the same time” — that's a murkier case, Krent said.

To consider whether the First Amendment's Establishment Clause was violated, he would ask questions such as did the coach create a special time or structure to facilitate prayer?

“That's why it's really fact-specific,” he said.

The foundation asked the district to give follow-up instructions to its athletic directors to “clarify that coaches may not appear to endorse religion by participating in student religious activities.” The group also asked for a written response from the district.

In a Dec. 8 letter to Bridges, the foundation urged the district to launch an investigation into the complaint and “take immediate action to stop any and all prayers occurring within any district athletic programs,” Jayne wrote.

Jayne cited Supreme Court cases that have struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools as violations of the First Amendment.

“Federal courts have consistently held that public school coaches represent the school during practices and games, and therefore they cannot participate in prayer with students,” Jayne said in a phone interview.

The group counts roughly 23,000 members, Jayne said.

“We rely mostly on them to be our eyes and ears for these sorts of issues,” he said.

"We are aware that a coach-led prayer is not appropriate," Superintendent Dan Bridges said in a letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Courtesy of David K. Neesley, Dk Digital Photography
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