A high school football coach in Tennessee, Rick Rice, is facing a complaint after leading his team in a post-game prayer on Aug. 30, USA Today reported Tuesday.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation lodged a complaint with the Rutherford County Board of Education Sept. 20 after a “concerned” parent reached out.
Rice is a coach at Rockvale High School and was filmed with his back to the camera, hands placed on two players’ shoulders, while members of the team bowed their heads in prayer after a game against Franklin County.
“Coach Rice's conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee," FFRF's attorney Dante CH Harootunian wrote in the complaint. "When a public school employee acting in an official capacity organizes and advocates for team prayer, he effectively endorses religion on the District's behalf."
According to its website, FFRF's mission is “protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.” The same organization was behind a complaint against Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney in 2014 for intertwining his faith and his team, and in particular, hiring a team chaplain.
Harootunian asked that Rockvale conduct an investigation into the situation, according to USA Today.
Coach apologizes, cites ‘old-school’ mentality
In a phone interview with USA Today, Rice said he led students in prayer twice, and a student led one time.
“I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful to other religions," Rice said. "It was just something I got used to in Wayne County, and nothing was ever said.
“It’s not OK today, but I’m old-school and guess I just forgot about it being such a sensitive issue in this day and time," he said. "I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful.”
Rice was previously head coach at Wayne County for 21 seasons, and was on staff there for 25; he was hired by Rockdale in January. He said he won’t lead a prayer again and would do “whatever was necessary to fix the issue.”
There have been a number of Supreme Court rulings over the past 60 or so years regarding prayer and public schools. Generally, the court has ruled cases of employees who participate or lead religious activities in public schools to be unconstitutional.
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