On a sweltering August afternoon at a Virginia public high school’s football practice, the coach calls his hot, thirsty players to attention. A guest, he announces, has brought them ice-cold watermelon — and a message. As the grateful young teens in uniform drop to the grass to savor their treat, the coach steps back and nods to his guest. The visitor is a preacher, and he’s there to bring the boys around to Coach’s particular brand of faith.
Coach figures all his boys and assistant coaches are Christian, because that’s what good Virginians are. And if they aren’t, they should be. He tells himself it’s part of his job because it’s good for the team. A boy without Jesus isn’t as respectful, strong or reliable — you know, Christian traits.
The preacher reads “The Competitor’s Creed” from the back of the book he holds, God’s Game Plan: The Athlete’s Bible:
I am a member of Team Jesus Christ… I do not trust in myself… or believe in my own strength. I rely solely on the power of God… I submit to God’s authority and those he has put over me. I respect my coaches… My body is the temple of Jesus Christ… Nothing enters my body that does not honor the Living God… My sweat is an offering to my Master. My soreness is a sacrifice to my Savior.
Many of the boys may have their own deeply held beliefs that are not those of the Coach and this preacher. Perhaps they’re Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Buddhist, or atheist. But the situation is intimidating and they remain still. It’s a rare child who could find the courage to stand up first, alone, in front of his teammates, to walk away from them and the stern coaches with folded arms who control his athletic fate.
So they obediently bow their heads in prayer to Jesus, in a scene that’s replaying quietly at public high schools throughout southwestern Virginia — and has been for about a decade.
The preacher is a representative of the national organization Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Group leaders estimate that they’ve proselytized to some 10,000 high school football players in Virginia in their “Watermelon Ministry.”
If that’s true, we have an idea of just how likely that above scenario is, of non-Christian boys subjected to an uncomfortable and coercive situation. The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study estimated that 27% of Virginians are not Christian and are either of another religion, unaffiliated, or non-religious. And the younger they are, the more likely it is they have no religious affiliation. That means thousands of non-Christian children may be targeted with Christian recruiting by their coaches at official school events. Add to that number the many Christians who disagree with outsiders interfering in private matters of faith at their public school or with the particular brand of religion espoused by the FCA.
The Watermelon Ministry, which appears to have started around 2006, has been hosted by Christian coaches in at least ten public schools in southwestern Virginia. Much of the region’s ministry is managed by the group’s Roanoke Valley director Al Soltis.
Startling Scope of Public School Ministry Emerges
FCA’s vision statement is “To see the world impacted for Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes.” Its website emphasizes that “biblical coaches” make up the front line of their campaign for children’s minds:
Coaches are the heart of FCA… We desire to see biblical coaches who are Christians who happen to coach, rather than just coaches who happen to be Christians. When coaches become followers of Jesus Christ, their character, their relationships and their approach to coaching will be authentic…
The school campus can be one of the most strategic mission fields with many youth passing through this portal.
The startling scope of Virginia public schools’ collaboration with this group in order to advance its mission came to light on August 4, when the small bi-weekly newspaper Roanoke Star ran an effusive front page story about the ministry at Patrick Henry High School, a public school in the city. An accompanying photo showed the school’s football team in uniform on school grounds, with three coaches standing close behind. FCA’s Al Soltis is preaching to them with intensity, leaning toward the boys with arms raised, Bible in hand:
After plying them with large slices of cool refreshing watermelon on a steamy summer day, Roanoke Area Fellowship of Christian Athletes Director Al Soltis (right) powerfully delivers the message of the gospel to over eighty student athletes and coaches at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke.
Soltis has been evangelizing for nine years… [and] reached over 10,000 students. He says the group plans to reach more sports and to see over 1500 athletes and coaches this year alone at the top 14 High Schools in in our area.
Two days later, a state senatorial candidate approvingly posted a photo of the ministry at Cave Spring High School on his campaign’s Facebook page. Soltis, holding a Bible, is preaching to the school’s football team at practice:
There is now evidence that at least ten southwestern Virginia public schools have hosted the Watermelon Ministry, including:
- William Fleming High School, City of Roanoke
- Patrick Henry High School, City of Roanoke
- Glenvar High School, Roanoke County
- Cave Spring High School, Roanoke County
- Hidden Valley High School, Roanoke County
- Northside High School, Roanoke County
- Salem High School, Roanoke County
- Christiansburg High School, Montgomery County
- Jefferson Forest High School, Bedford County
- Franklin High School, Franklin County
The inappropriate actions aren’t just at practice, as revealed by 2008 FCA Facebook photos of Soltis leading a prayer on the playing field at a game between William Fleming and Northside high schools, as coaches look on:
Enter the Freedom From Religion Foundation
FCA’s aggressive targeting of Virginia children caught the attention of yet another national group, one whose mission is guarding church-state separation and protecting public school children from religious coercion. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national non-profit with approximately 500 members in Virginia, called last week for an immediate halt to the program. They’ve sent letters to Roanoke-area school superintendents requesting the schools “immediately discontinue allowing religious leaders access to students during school activities.”
FFRF describes the program as an “illegal” and “predatory” constitutional violation in its letters, which were sent on Sept. 17 to Dr. Rita Bishop, superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools, and Dr. Gregory Killough, superintendent of Roanoke County Public Schools.
The letters cite numerous legal cases, stating:
This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags.
It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion. Courts have consistently held that it is illegal for a public school to include religious content in school events, including events taking place outside of the regular school day…
Allowing representatives of religious groups regular, or even one-time, access during a school activity to proselytize and recruit students for religious activities is a violation of the Establishment Clause. The courts have protected public school students from overreaching outsiders in similar situations…
Federal courts have specifically held that it is unconstitutional for public school coaches to participate in team religious activity…
FFRF cites evidence of the program for five of the schools involved: Patrick Henry and William Fleming high schools within the city of Roanoke; and Glenvar, Cave Spring, and Hidden Valley high schools in surrounding Roanoke County. FFRF attorney Patrick Elliott told me via email that the group may also approach other school systems in the area that host the program.
The letters explain why U.S. courts (not to mention society) have agreed on these laws:
[The schools] cannot allow non-school persons to treat school football practices as a recruiting ground for their religious mission. It demonstrates an unlawful preference not only for religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over all other faiths. Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion. When a school allows an adult FCA representative to preach to its students on the field during practice (or immediately following practice), it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message — in this case, a Christian message. Given the approval by coaches of the speaker, players will absolutely perceive that this is a school-sponsored activity. This alienates those non-Christian students and parents whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being disseminated by the school.
Public schools have an obligation to remain separate from religion because “the preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere”… Students are young, impressionable, and vulnerable to social pressure, particularly pressure exerted from an adult. This program usurps the authority of parents…
FFRF concludes with this request:
[The schools] must immediately discontinue allowing Mr. Soltis or any other religious leaders access to students during school activities, including football practices. Please inform us promptly in writing of the steps you are taking to ensure that these constitutional violations are not allowed to continue.
How will school superintendents respond? It’s hard to see how this could be possibly be defended. There will likely be the usual disingenuous claims that the students weren’t really required to be there and could have walked away — as if that wouldn’t require a superhero’s courage. Or that the coaches had nothing to do with organizing the events — as if the FCA receives a divine message when and where to show up with its truck of iced-down produce.
Really, there are two questions they should be asking:
How much of Virginians’ desperately needed tax dollars will be thrown away by its public schools defending an egregious violation of students’ rights? (Let’s hope they’re wise enough to make that number zero.)
How will Christians in the community respond? That is, will they sow division and hostility in these communities by angrily attacking defenders of students’ constitutional rights? Will they loudly demand the special privilege to coerce our children at our schools, one that we know from experience they would deny to members of any other faith group? Will they insist they’re uniquely above the law and have a special right shared by no other group to usurp a private family matter? Or will they see the wisdom of protecting both our children and their beliefs from government interference in something so personal?
A compilation of further links and photos documenting the Watermelon Ministry at these and other Virginia public schools can be found at my blog, Under the Greenwood Tree. It begins with the section titled “More of the ‘Watermelon Ministry’ at Virginia Public High Schools.”