Starting this season, team chaplains, signs with Bible verses and praying before games will all be banned from Orange County public schools in Florida, thanks to an atheist activist group who sent a threatening letter to the district’s superintendent.
The group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, crowed about its victory on its website, explaining that “in March, FFRF blasted the schools for allowing team chaplains, putting bible verses on the field and team gear and for including religious music on game footage.” Now “the same Florida school district that is allowing atheists to distribute literature is now abolishing athletic chaplaincies for its teams and removing bible verses from sports venues and apparel.”
FFRF had previously brought a federal suit against the district for prohibiting the distribution of atheist reading material, including titles such as “An X-rated Book: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible,” “What Does The Bible Say About Abortion?” and “Jesus is Dead,” by Robert Price. The district had allowed, and continues to allow, the distribution of Bibles–meaning the placement of free Bibles on a table from which students may voluntarily take them. (RELATED: Atheist Group Got Navy To Remove Donated Bibles From All Lodges, Hotels)
A federal judge dismissed the case in July after the district changed its policy in 2014, allowing the previously prohibited materials to be distributed. In a press release issued after the dismissal, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel said that now “Satanists can distribute their literature, Muslims can distribute the Quran, and atheists can distribute books that criticize religion.” (RELATED: Federal Judge Tells Atheist Group, The Ground Zero Cross Stays)
Still unsatisfied, FFRF set its sights on its next target: religious expression at football games.
“Since bringing our lawsuit against Orange County Public Schools, we have received continual reports of further illegal religious activity in your district,” their letter of complaint began, “including a serious level of entanglement between The Venue Church and at least one school in your district, Apopka High School, and rampant religious activity within Apopka’s football program.”
Venue is a nearby Christian church committed to “partnering with schools to serve students and families,” according to their website. “We believe that students on our public school campuses are facing unprecedented challenges as they seek to understand and experience life and fullness. … We believe it’s time for the church to move into the heart of our communities and love, serve and care for our public schools and their students.”
Venue has raised nearly $30,000 for the school. “Our focus isn’t proselytizing,” said Todd Lamphere, Apopka’s now former (unofficial) chaplain. “We give kids rides (home) after practice and sometimes buy them dinner. Some people just have an issue with everything that has to do with God.”
Apopka’s team, the Blue Darters, won the state championship in 2012 and finished second in 2013. According to the U.S. News and World Report, 43 percent of its student body is considered “economically disadvantaged.”
An August memorandum released by the district largely cowed to FFRF’s complaints, agreeing that coaches and other school personnel cannot join students in prayer, that team chaplains are not allowed and that citation of Bible verses on signs or student apparel at games is prohibited, as are “religious lyrics” in music played during game videos–although the original videos FFRF complained about were made and posted “by an outside entity having nothing to do with the school.”
“While I understand that there may be longstanding practices of the football team and other athletic teams at Apopka High School and possibly at other schools,” the memo, written by the district’s general counsel attorney, concludes, “such practices run afoul of established constitutional cases that prohibit such government-led action, even if these practices may be endorsed and supported by the community at large.”
“Because the District seeks to comply with the law and avoid potentially costly litigation,” the memo reads, all such practices must end.