On the surface the controversy was fairly unremarkable, just another minor skirmish in the culture wars. We at the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center had sent an email to a school district in Indiana objecting to coaches participating in prayer circles at sporting events. The issue was brought to our attention by a concerned citizen, and we had a photograph (shown above) to prove it.
It was such a mundane matter that we decided to refrain from any publicity. We frequently send out press releases when we complain about church-state violations because the stories tend to catch the attention of local media. That news coverage, in turn, helps raise awareness of the issue at hand while also letting the public know that the AHA stands ready to assist in such matters. Here, however, we really just wanted to correct the problem without raising a fuss. The law is very clear, and we assumed that the parties involved were just being careless and not intentionally stomping on the rights of religious minorities who don’t want coaches engaging in Christian prayers, so we thought we’d ask for the situation to be corrected without calling any public or media attention to it.
And fortunately, the school complied. Officials responded to our email complaint almost immediately, within about an hour, by thanking us for pointing out the problem and assuring us that it would be quickly corrected. We couldn’t have been more pleased. It’s always nice when everyone involved in a minor dispute acts maturely and responsibly, thus solving the problem with little difficulty or disruption. The kids could still pray after their basketball games if they wish, but we just won’t have the coaches joining them to create an environment that makes the prayer seem like a team activity, where kids might see participation in the exercise as something they should do to please the coach.
That should have been the end of the story. With no publicity being done, no media attention would be brought to the story. Or so we thought.
The next morning at work, however, our phone began ringing. Reporters were calling about the “prayer controversy” in Indiana. Apparently local social media was exploding with anger, as someone connected with the schools had leaked out the story about how coaches were being told to refrain from participation in the prayer circles. This was apparently an attack on Christianity, and the public was enraged. We received one nasty email after another telling us how horrible we were. Here’s one that came in that morning:
THIS COUNTRY WAS FOUNDED ON THE BELIEF OF GOD! IF YOU HATE GOD SO MUCH GO WHERE THEY WILL APPREACATE YOUR BELIEFS! HELL! STOP TRYING TO PUT GOD IN THE BACK GROUND !
In my experience as AHA legal director I’ve discovered that the all-caps format is common among angry Christians. I call it the biblical font. (Hope you “appreacate” the humor.)
For a story that was never promoted by a press release, the Indiana prayer circle “controversy” had incredible legs. Not only did it catch the attention of local media, then Indianapolis media, but it eventually was picked up by national press, including ABC News, USA Today, and even in the United Kingdom via the Daily Mail.
Though I can’t call much of the coverage unfair, it’s interesting that almost nowhere within the stories (and even less so in the comments from members of the public) do we find much concern about the underlying reason that the law doesn’t want coaches praying with students: the coercive atmosphere that it creates for religious minorities (whether it be atheists, agnostics, humanists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or something else) who would prefer that coaches on the public payroll not endorse the Christianity of the majority.
Instead, public attention seems to focus on what is incorrectly seen as the “religious freedom” of those involved. This is strange, considering nobody is challenging the kids’ right to pray. As for the coaches, they simply don’t have the right to make religious minorities uncomfortable and out of place by joining a group of praying students at a school event. Sorry, coach, you can pray in groups at church or at home or anywhere else, but not while on the job. When you’re on the clock on the public payroll, don’t create an environment that endorses a particular religious view. Coaches don’t become victims when we ask them to do that. It’s called doing your job.