A new bill introduced by a Georgia lawmaker could allow public high school football coaches and other district personnel engage in prayers that are led and initiated by students.
Sen. Michael Williams (R-Ga.) – a candidate in the Georgia governor race – introduced Senate Bill 361 to seek justice after the Coweta County School System (CCSS) issued a guidance last Halloween that essentially forbid East Coweta High School Football coach John Small from participating in prayers with his team before games.
Right to live out one’s faith
If the newly proposed legislation passes, Georgia state law would be amended so that public school staff can exercise their right to freely express their religious beliefs on campuses statewide beginning with the 2019–2019 school year.
“[SB 361 amends state law applying to elementary and secondary education to provide] freedom of religious expression by faculty and employees of public schools while fulfilling the duties of their jobs," the bill titled the "Coach Small Religious Protection Act” reads. "While performing their assigned job duties, school employees are required to maintain a position of neutrality toward religion; however, when interacting with other school employees or when the context makes clear that the employee is not speaking on behalf of the school, school employees are entitled to robust protections for their religious expression."
The legislation makes it clear that school personnel will not be punished for praying with students – as long as they are invited to do so.
“[During] contract [time, school employees, faculty and other types of volunteers affiliated with the school are permitted to] participate in voluntary student-initiated, student-led prayer, such as prayer before a sporting event – when invited to do so by the students, provided that the participation is in the faculty's or employee's personal capacity and not as a representative of the school," the bill continues.
Other forms of school employees’ religious expression are protected by SB 361, as well.
“The bill would also protect teachers' rights to wear religious clothing, jewelry or symbols and engage in religious discussions and share religious materials with other faculty,” The Christian Post (CP) reported.
Atheists wage war on school prayer
Last fall, after the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) discovered Small with his head bowed while engaging in team prayer, it quickly filed its complaint with the CCSS.
FFRF’s letter warned CCSS that allowing public school athletic coaches to “further personal religious beliefs” by leading their teams in prayer is illegal – claiming that such activity constitutes the government’s advancement and endorsement of religion and violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
“Coach Small’s conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee,” FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line warned CCSS Superintendent Steve Barker in his Oct. 25 letter.
This threat of legal action spurred school officials to send out a district-wide directive to public school employees.
“[Coaches cannot] join hands, bow their heads, take a knee or commit another act that otherwise manifests approval with the students' religious exercise [when it can be perceived to display government endorsement of religion],” CCSS’s district-wide guidance states.
FFRF Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor was elated at her group's victory over school prayer.
“We appreciate the district’s swift action to address the violation and its commitment to protecting the rights of conscience for all of its students,” Gaylor stated in an FFRF press release after the guidenace was issued.
Engaging atheists in spiritual warfare at schools
SB 361 address the aggressive fear and intimidation tactics being used by atheists to promote secular interests aimed at removing God and all vestiges of Christianity from the schools by manipulating laws that were never intended to eradicate the rights of government employees to live out their faith on school campuses.
"Public schools are being threatened by out-of-state special interest groups who demand that schools adopt inaccurate interpretations of the First Amendment that unlawfully restrict the freedom of students, teachers, and other public school employees to engage in religious expression or otherwise exercise their freedom of religion, leading to a stifling of constitutional rights," the legislation reads. "Clear protection in state law is needed for students, teachers, and other school employees in public schools in order to ensure First Amendment freedoms are protected, to prevent against interference from out-of-state special interest groups, and to safeguard academic freedom."
Williams stressed the need for the passage of his bill, which he believes is necessary to keep the backbone of America – its freedom to worship – from crumbling.
"[Even though] religious liberty is the bedrock of our nation, [out-of-state groups like FFRF are] forcing their secular values on Georgia students," the Georgia gubernatorial candidate impressed, according to CP. "This is a much-needed protection for Georgia faculty members and students who incorporate their religious beliefs into their daily lives. The Supreme Court has held for over 50 years that religious beliefs don't end in the school parking lot."
Family Policy Alliance of Georgia President and Executive Director Cole Muzio had nothing but accolades for Williams’ bill.
"Every student and faculty member should have the right to exercise their First Amendment rights without fear of bullying from radical atheist groups," Muzio expressed in a statement, according to CP. "I am thankful that Senator Michael Williams has stepped forward to protect the First Amendment rights of all Georgians and affirm that our schools should be a place where those freedoms are taught, honored, and no longer vilified and banned. My hope is that our legislators in the Gold Dome will unite to pass this common-sense legislation."
An angry atheist’s rant
Even though Patheos.com blogger Hemant Mehta, self-dubbed the “Friendly Atheist,” claims to take the peaceful rational side on religious issues in the United States, his rant on William’s recent legislation took a rather combatant tone against Christians.
“[This] is what the Religious Right doesn’t understand – when a high school football coach is working a game, everything he does is under the banner of a school representative,” Mehta argues in his Patheos blog. “Just because the final whistle has blown doesn’t mean his duties are over.”
He went on to allege that a coach taking part in prayer for strength and God’s blessing is equivalent to calling out plays for students to execute during a game.
“Football coaches, in particular, usually have a post-game meeting with players and conversations with local reporters,” Mehta pointed out. “If there’s a student-led prayer immediately after the game, and the coach joins in, it’s reasonable to say he’s still their football coach – not random dude John Small who just happened to wander into the prayer circle accidentally.”
The atheist blogger went on to use the often-used “Separation of Church and State” argument, which secularists frequently misinterpret, even though it was not intended by its originator, Thomas Jefferson, to eradicate religious expression in public schools.
“That’s why this bill has no chance of surviving if it passes,” Mehta assured his secular audience. “It violates the law from the get-go, and church/state separation groups know it.”
He ended his partisan atheist mantra against Christianity by attacking Williams and conservative Republicans as ignorant – despite the fact that they have the U.S. Constitution on their side of the spiritual battle taking place in America’s courts and schools.
“It’s too bad State Sen. Williams, a candidate for governor, doesn’t understand the very law he swore to uphold,” Mehta concluded. “But what else would you expect from a Republican these days?”