If you’re a high school football coach who wants to break the law by promoting religion, then it’s probably a bad idea to draw attention to it.
Fred Riley, the coach at Davidson High School in Alabama, never got that memo. Or maybe he doesn’t understand what the boundary lines are. In a local publication, Riley insisted he didn’t proselytize to his students… before admitting he totally facilitates it.
Davidson coach Fred Riley said his team says the Lord’s Prayer after every practice. But — although he is a Christian — he doesn’t initiate it, encourage it or even participate in it. The players take ownership of that.
“I don’t evangelize to student athletes but every opportunity I get I do put them in front of people who can,” he said. “We go to FCA events in the summer. We have a team chaplain. We try to create an environment outside of school that allows for those opportunities, but I’m not the one at the center of it.”
Giving students opportunities — nudging them along, if you will — to abandon their Jewish faith, or Muslim faith, or atheism is no different from preaching right in front of them. A coach who sends students to Fellowship of Christian Athletes events in the summer is breaking the law. So is a District that has a team chaplain.
That chaplain, Southern Alabama FCA Area Director Dennis Hayford, isn’t making matters any better. He told a different news outlet about how much access he had to the kids:
“I do big FCA events for football teams in the area and Fred Riley is always the first to sign his team up. He has 100% attendance at all of our big events in the last ten years. Not any other coach in Mobile County can say that,” Hayford said.
Maybe that’s because the other coaches in Mobile County are following the rules…
Hayford also spoke highly of Riley in a letter defending him after members of his team took part in a hazing ritual that left one student seriously injured.
As his chaplain for four years, I had unrestricted access to practices, team meetings, coaches meetings, and travel to and from games. In all those instances, I saw Fred make many decisions…
In 2008, I became the regional director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. This vocational move necessitated my resignation as DHS chaplain. Fred immediately filled my spot with another spiritual leader for his young men.
Again: Not helping the situation. The way he’s speaking up for Riley, Hayford may be putting him in legal jeopardy.
Coach Riley’s conduct is unconstitutional because he has been using his official position as an MCPS employee to advance and promote his religious views. Certainly, he represents the school and the team when he acts in his official role as head coach of the DHS football team. Therefore, he cannot use his position to put students in contact with religious leaders for the purposes of spreading his religious beliefs.
Coach Riley’s promotion, and thereby the District’s promotion, of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes undeniably turns any non-Christian DHS player into an outsider. This is particularly true in the context of a high school football team. Any team member who doesn’t want to participate in FCA events cannot possibly feel like a “full member” of the football team when Coach Riley has made clear he wants his team to participate. No public school employees should be actively participating in the religious activities of their students, requiring students to attend religious activities, or openly preferring one religion over another while acting in their official capacity.
FFRF is asking that Riley be removed as head coach given all the allegations against him. Regardless of whether the District does that, they’l have to put a stop this religious promotion if they want to avoid a lawsuit.
It’s not that complicated. I’m a high school coach, too. I don’t promote my personal beliefs in front of my students. SEE HOW EASY THAT IS?!
Riley doesn’t seem to get it. Neither does Hayford, who thinks his religion gives him the right to act as a coach, attend all practices, and travel with the team. Given the hazing incident, it doesn’t even seem like their preaching is doing anyone any good.
It needs to stop now.
(Image via Shutterstock)