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May coaches lead sports teams in prayer before games?

The Christian Law Association (CLA) has fielded many telephone inquiries from teachers and coaches about their rights to pray before a sporting event.  In one instance, a coach had been confronted by school administrators because he regularly gathered the team together to pray just prior to the start of the game.  Since this practice has been declared to be unconstitutional, attorneys representing CLA recommend that coaches absent themselves from these prayer sessions and permit the students to initiate and lead any pre-game prayers on their own.  If the coaches are present, they may take a respectful posture, but should not actively participate in the student prayers.

Although the constitutionality of this approach has never been tested in court, according to the general rules regarding Establishment Clause issues, one way for a coach to participate in a voluntary prayer time might be to gather with the players off school property before he and the players are required to be at the school.  For example, one community little league coach told players on his team that he would be praying at a picnic table adjacent to the official playing field 15 minutes before he as scheduled to be at the field.  Any players who wanted to join him for prayer at that time, before their scheduled game time, were free to do so.  Another coach invited his players to attend various churches with him on their own time on Sunday mornings.  Invitations for such activities should be extended away from the school and with parental knowledge and approval.

Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

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