Written by Don Byrd

A high school cross country coach in Illinois’ Dunlap High School is answering charges that his practice of standing with his team as they pray before meets is a violation of church-state separation. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to school officials demanding a change to the practice, leading to a troubling line of defense.

A Journal Star editorial explains (my emphasis):

According to the parent’s complaint to the FFRF, a national church-and-state watchdog, coach Friedman was participating in the student-led prayers before boys cross country meets by standing with the students and holding his hat across his heart during the prayer. According to the FFRF, this action makes “any students who opt out feel like they are disappointing their coach.”

Friedman added that he has checked with non-Christian students to make sure they were OK with the prayer.

Checking with non-Christian students may seem like a thoughtful reaction, but what position does that put those students in? When the coach of their team, who bows his head and observes the students’ prayers reverentially, asks them if it’s ok, what does he expect them to say? Isn’t this too much religious pressure for a government representative to place on a teenager?

Courts have consistently ruled that school children are more vulnerable to religious coercion than adults and are accordingly deserving of greater protection. Maintaining a safe religious space for public school students means more than putting them on the spot to let them veto a group prayer. If students wish to initiate their own prayer, coaches would do better by all of them to stay out of it altogether.