A Florida school district has bowed to pressure from the atheist Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) to ban local ministers and other Christians from serving as chaplains to the district's school sports teams.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that the Orange County school district announced that a complaint from the FFRF prompted school officials to ban the chaplains, who have offered spiritual encouragement to student athletes for years.
In a press release the FFRF boasted that in March it had “blasted” the school district “for allowing team chaplains, putting bible verses on the field and team gear, and for including religious music on game footage.”
The Sentinel reported that the atheist group had complained to the district over instances of Apopka High School football players praying with Todd Lamphere, a pastor of The Venue Church, a local congregation. As of this writing Lamphere's church bio continues to represent him as the chaplain of the Apopka High football team, as well as past chaplain of the Lyman and Lake Howell football teams in Seminole County.
Following FFRF's threatening complaint, the district quickly circulated a memo throughout the district explaining that “having a team chaplain is not permitted as it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in the same manner as a school employee participating in prayer with students.”
While past efforts by the FFRF to get student-led prayer banned from schools have failed, the memo emphasized Orange County school officials were to “make sure to educate the staff ... that active participation by any School Board employee and/or non-faculty coach in student-led prayer must not occur as it is contrary to established case law.”
Troy Schmidt, a pastor at a local Baptist church, told Fox News that just before starting his seventh year as chaplain for the football team at Orange County's Olympia high school, “I received a call from the coach. He said Orange County Public Schools is no longer allowed to have chaplains as a part of the football program.... I could no longer open the Bible, talk about the Bible, talk about God, or pray with the team in any capacity. It was heartbreaking.”
Shari Bobinski, a spokesperson for the school district, confirmed to Fox News that sports teams “cannot have chaplains or ministers before or after games leading prayer. Students are more than welcome to lead their own prayers but our faculty and staff cannot be involved, nor can we bring in an outside chaplain.”
Fox reported that, additionally, thanks to the FFRF complaint, “Bible verses and references to the Bible are banned on school property. Bible verses are also prohibited on clothing produced by the school. And songs with religious lyrics may not be used in school-related videos.”
Schmidt told Fox News that the Olympia school officials still wanted him to come and inspire the football team — only in a strictly secular fashion. “They said I could still come and speak, but I wasn’t going to be called a chaplain,” he said. “They wanted to call me a 'life coach.'”
That would mean no Bible, prayer, or other elements that Schmidt has been accustomed to using in his service to the student team. “That’s not me,” he told Fox News. “I don’t get any inspiration besides what I get in the Bible. My heroes come from the Bible and I think there is a lot of inspiration in there that can motivate a football player to get out on the field and play their best and be their best.”
The idea of a “life coach” didn't sit well with the FFRF either. The thought of a Christian adult having access to students left the atheist group flummoxed. Calling the idea of a life coach “nonsense,” FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel insisted that “Orange County can’t avoid this issue with creative wordplay.”
Apparently fearful that the school might not have been duly threatened by his group's intrusion, Seidel insisted that “the school cannot give preachers access to a captive audience of public school students for a religious purpose, like prayer. Does Orange County really expect people to believe that chaplains, now life coaches, will keep their religion and their bible to themselves? Does the school actually want to be in the business of regulating religious speech?”
However, Seidel and the FFRF had no ready answer for Schmidt's insistence that despite being banned from offering spiritual encouragement, he and his church would continue to put on a weekly pre-game feast for the football team.
“Roast beef, meatloaf, brownies — these [are] pretty extravagant meals,” he told Fox News. “We wanted to make sure they got a great home-cooked meal.” Even though the school district has caved in to the atheist group, “we don’t want the kids to suffer.”
The FFRF is by no means finished harassing the Orange County school district. The group said it still has “a number of outstanding complaints with the district, including school-sponsored baccalaureates, holding school events in churches, and forcing students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
But given the district's willingness to surrender without a fight in the issue of school chaplains, “these issues could soon be corrected,” added the atheist group.