One of the frustrating things about seeing local news reporters discuss church/state separation issues is how often they misunderstand the law.
At Dunmore High School in Pennsylvania, for example, the Freedom From Religion Foundation found out that the football team’s Head Coach Jack Henzes had been praying with his players for several decades. Tradition is irrelevant here. It’s illegal for a public school official to promote religion, so the FFRF sent the District a letter explaining the law and how these coach-led prayers had to stop. And the District, to its credit, finally put a stop to them.
But look at how local reporter Haley Bianco of WBRE/WYOU Eyewitness News covered the story:
Head coach Jack Henzes has been leading the team prayer for the past 45 years– a tradition that’s now a thing of the past. A group called The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently complained to the school district — shedding light that it is illegal for a public school employee to endorse religious beliefs.
“We never told any player they had to go to church or do this or that and it’s up to them to decide what they want to do,” said Henzes.
And the team has made its decision.
“We’re going to go on the 50-yard-line and say the Our Father,” said Colin Holmes, senior running back and quarterback.
And they did — kneeling in prayer on the field — despite the objections of the religious foundation which is based in Wisconsin.
FFRF does not object to student-led prayers. They never have. The students have every right to pray on the field (assuming it’s not disruptive) if that’s what they want to do.
To say that the group objects to students “kneeling in prayer on the field” misrepresents what they stand for and plays right into the stereotype that they are out to block religion at every turn. That’s not what they do.
Bianco should have mentioned that the students’ decision is perfectly in line with FFRF’s request to stop coach-led prayers. Atheists don’t have a legal problem with what the kids are doing.
She also doesn’t do her due diligence as a reporter in this passage:
Parents say it’s a shame that an out of state organization barged into this tight-knit community, a community that supports the tradition and hopes to see it continue.
“This community has been built on a foundation of tradition and values and I think this is just one way that we show it. We’re very tight-knit here and i think everyone can use a little prayer at one time or another,” said Rebecca Castellano, parent.
It doesn’t matter what the community thinks; it matters what the law says. And their ignorance shouldn’t be paraded as a virtue. More importantly, though, FFRF didn’t just “barge” into this community. They takes action only when local residents bring these matters to their attention. For all Bianco knows, it was a football player or parent who told the group this was happening.
FFRF doesn’t seek out these problems. They respond when local residents ask them for help.
To not include a statement explaining that fact allows viewers to get a false idea of how the atheist organization works.
This is awful reporting in an attempt to show an “inspiring” story. The story here is that the coach violated the law, an atheist group called the District out on it, the coach backed off, and the students continued praying (which FFRF would agree they have every right to do).
It’s irresponsible to suggest otherwise.