A prayer circle amongst players and coaches from both Waldron and Morristown girls basketball teams has come under attack by the American Humanist Association, which sent a letter to the schools, placing them on notice after being made aware of the situation.
A prayer circle amongst players and coaches from both Waldron and Morristown girls basketball teams has come under attack by the American Humanist Association, which sent a letter to the schools, placing them on notice after being made aware of the situation.
MORRISTOWN - For Scott Spahr, the idea that he was doing something wrong never crossed his mind.

As a basketball coach for years, Spahr had joined with and granted prayer requests from players numerous times.

However, a reaction to a recent instance where Spahr joined members of the Morristown and Waldron 5th and 6th grade basketball teams at midcourt to pray caught Spahr completely off guard.

"The players request it and I prayed. They say, 'Please pray for my grandpa or my mom or the test on Friday.' On Friday, I was informed of the 'On Notice' status from the American Humanist Association. I understood where it was coming from. This is what makes our country great - the opportunity to believe or not believe what we want," Spahr said.

According to its website (www.americanhumanist.org), the American Humanist Association "strives to bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is accepted and respected way to live life."

"The mission of the American Humanist Association is to advance humanism, an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of belief in any gods and other supernatural forces. Advocating for equality for nontheists and as a society guided by reason, empathy and our growing knowledge of the world, the AHA promotes a worldview that encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good," the website states.

In an interview Monday with The Shelbyville News, David Niose, who is the legal director of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said the AHA became aware of the situation after being notified.

"Someone notified us and it got passed along to us. We do a lot of church-state litigation," Niose said.

In an email obtained by The Shelbyville News dated Dec. 4, Niose emailed Morristown Elementary School Principal John Corn and Waldron Elementary School Principal Christy Merchant about the situation.

In the email, Niose states that the purpose is to put the schools and the Shelby Eastern Schools District on "notice of a constitutional violation that is occurring under the authority of your schools."

"We've been advised that, as a regular part of sports activities at your schools, coaches have been participating in group prayers with students. As you probably know, staff participation in prayers with students at school events is impermissible, as it conveys an endorsement of religion and creates a coercive atmosphere where children may feel pressured to participate in the religious activity," Niose wrote.

Niose said the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was violated, and that faculty is not supposed to be praying on the job.

"Under current law, faculty is not supposed to be praying on the job and it sends the message that students are expected to participate. Teachers and coaches are not supposed to be on the job leading prayer and it can put pressure on a kid not to stand out. When you are at the venue, you are the coach. We are not asking the coach to be anti-religious, but the law says the coach should be neutral. We are trying to respect the rights of the religious minority, which is often forgotten. Nobody is saying the kids cannot pray," he said.

The issue of the Establishment Clause and public schools is nothing new.

In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale, which centered around New York schools beginning the school day with prayer, that it is unconstitutional for officials to encourage an official prayer in school.

In the ruling, Justice Hugo Black wrote the Establishment Clause had been violated when the school put "indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the officially approved religion."

The AHA refrained from sending a more formal and lengthy complaint because it is their hope that Shelby Eastern will give assurances that the situation would be quickly addressed and remedied.

"We sent an email and we heard back. We never issued a public letter. Someone decided to make it a public issue. The response from the school was that they acknowledged it wasn't right and it would be addressed," Niose said.

Shelby Eastern Schools Superintendent Dr. Robert Evans said he is "trying to do what is right for all."

"We cannot promote religious behavior as school officials, but we will let students express their religious freedom outside of school," Evans said.

Evans said students have a right to prayer and that the right to freedom of religion is guaranteed in the First Amendment.

"Students have the right to engage in individual or group prayer. As long as an activity outside the school day is not disruptive, and as long as school officials remain neutral concerning religion while they are carrying out their duties, the freedom of religion is guaranteed," Evans said.

Spahr said he has no problem complying.

"I know my team requests to pray before and after games, and I know that others do as well. From this point on, I will do what the law states, and if it states that, as a staff member, I cannot lead it, then it will be those players who want to and I will not be in the circle, but will use that time to give my thanks and reflect my beliefs," he said.

Spahr added he has heard from numerous people on both sides of the issue.

"Both sides are able to express their thoughts. This is a very intense subject with lots of meaning for both sides. What I want to see as a resolution is for the kids to be able to have time to reflect, pray, meditate as a group or individuals to their beliefs without feeling pressured from anyone and not to be told they have to or told that they are not. It should be a choice the students make with the direction of their parents and their beliefs," Spahr said.

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