Coach Eddie Metcalf in Wakulla County, Florida got a reprimand after he was recorded kneeling with praying with his middle school football team.
It started with this video, posted on Facebook back on October 7.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which advocates a strict separation of church and state, found out about it, and told the Wakulla School District this violated the constitution.
“It is illegal for public school athletic coach to lead their teams in pray. The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public school,” Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote in a November 9 letter. He cited several cases in support. One was Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick, where a high school football coach got in trouble after silently bowing his head and kneeling while his player’s prayed. He lost both the district case as well as his appeal, and the Supreme Court declined to hear him out in 2009.
A lawyer for the Wakulla County School Board wrote back on November 21, and agreed that the coach didn’t act correctly. She said district officials met with him and other coaching staff “to reaffirm the Board’s policy and practice on the issue,” and that he’d face disciplinary measures. (He won’t be losing his job.)
“Coach Metcalf is a value and respected member of Wakulla Middle School and the Wakulla Community,” Attorney Holly A. Dincman wrote. “Coach Metcalf understands that his actions were improper.”
Metcalf could not be reached for comment. Superintendent Robert Pearce explained more in a December 13 WCTV report.
“That’s not allowable under the law,” he said. “The coach may not participate in the prayer. He may not kneel with the players. He may not put his hands on a player during a prayer. What we want our coaches to do and what most people have survived with in regards to meeting the letter of the law – is to have separation from the players – two to three steps. You are allowed to have reverent respect for their prayer.”
We reached out to Professor Richard W. Garnett, a First Amendment expert at the Notre Dame Law School, and he laid out the legal dynamics in a case like this. The explanation fits the school board’s actions as reported.
Cases like these—like most cases involving religious displays in public or prayer in the public-school context—are highly context-sensitive and fact-dependent. The goal of any school policy should be to respect the rights of students to exercise freely their religion by praying while at the same time preventing school officials from acting in a way that coerces or endorses religious activity. Especially in elementary and middle schools, courts have been concerned that students—because of their age—will feel pressured to participate or will get the impression that the school itself is endorsing the prayer.
Update – December 16, 5:19 p.m.: Added some legal background on this situation
[Screengrab via Facebook]