Rockvale football team prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent this photo to Rutherford County Schools. The organization says this is Rockvale High School Rockets Football Head Coach Rick Rice praying with his team. FFRF called the action unconstitutional and demanded that it end.

Rockvale High School students are not letting an atheist organization stop them from praying at football games.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) on Friday, Sept. 20 sent Rutherford County Schools a letter in protest of Rockets Head Coach Rick Rice praying with his team, calling it unconstitutional. The organization said a “concerned district parent” contacted it, and “it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer.”

FFRF also says it believes public school coaches not only are prohibited from leading, but also from participating in prayer with students. The organization concluded its letter by asking RCS to investigate the complaint “and take immediate action to stop any and all prayers occurring within any District athletic programs. Please inform us in writing of the steps you are taking to remedy this violation of the First Amendment.”

James Evans, RCS Communications & Community Relations director, said, “The school principal has addressed the issue with the coach and the matter has been resolved. The coach has apologized for any misunderstanding. Any prayers or religious activities must be student-initiated and student-led. Employees are not to lead the activities or participate other than to provide supervision.”

One member of the Rockets football team, who participated Wednesday in See You at the Pole, an annual student-led prayer event, defended the team’s prayers when asked about the controversy. He said all coaches and teams pray, and the policy advocated by FFRF is “just kind of dumb, but if it’s the rules, I agree with it.”

The player said Rice should not get in trouble. Players have the option of not participating in the team prayers, including those before meals on game days, he said.

Another student participating in See You at the Pole said players, other students, and families and friends from Rockvale and Oakland High were planning to gather in prayer on Rockvale’s sports track at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27 before the football game.

School board member Tiffany Johnson, a Christian, said she supports student-led prayers at schools, citing the positive influence of prayer at a time when families are breaking down.

“A football coach, just as a human being who is respected and leading his team, whether it’s in prayer, we need leaders like that,” Johnson said. “What an example that coach is to our students. With what kids are dealing with in bullying, I don’t see the harm in it.”

Johnson said that as a board member, she sees the need for RCS to have a policy to separate church and state, but added that she believes that philosophy is misinterpreted. There is one positive takeaway from the Rockvale controversy, she said.

“It’s lit a fire in our students,” she said. “I think you’re going to see a response,” and added that a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group is forming, and a girls group is focusing on prayers.

“I’m confident that’s not going to keep us from being the people of Christ we are,” she said. “I’m going to step up my prayer.”

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