Friday Night Liturgy: Many High School Football Coaches Push Prayer On Players

We know religious coercion can be more powerful than a hit by a linebacker, but we have a very strong teammate on our side: the U.S. Constitution.

It’s no secret that faith is a big part of football in certain regions of the United States, but a Tennessee newspaper has just shed some light on the extent to which prayer is intertwined with many public school football programs.

In a poll conducted by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, all 32 coaches at public schools in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia who responded to the survey identify as Christian and said they support team prayer in some form.

That’s not necessarily a First Amendment problem, but after reading Times Free Press reporter Stephen Hargis’ story on faith and football, it’s pretty hard to argue that the game isn’t being used as an excuse to allow coercive prayer in many public schools.  

“We as coaches fail if we only teach football, so we try to set an example of how a Christian man handles any situation,” Ridgeland High School (Ga.) coach Mark Mariakis told the Times Free Press. “I want the kids to remember that example more than anything they learn on the football field.”

Mariakis is certainly no stranger to problematic proselytizing. Last year he got into trouble when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) alleged that Mariakis took his team to churches for meals and proselytizing, led players in prayer, put Bible verses on team clothing and pressured his players to attend Christian football camps during the summer.

Sadly, it seems Mariakis hasn’t really changed his ways since that complaint. He told the Times Free Press that he knows he “can’t lead our team in prayer… but what God did was He lifted up a large group of leaders from our team, players that stepped up to lead us in prayer every day.”

So Mariakis may not be leading the prayers himself any longer, but if his players are doing it at his request, that still sounds like coercive prayer.

Unfortunately this sort of behavior is far from unique, in part because Mariakis has at least one disciple who followed in his footsteps.

Bill Barnhart is a former assistant to Mariakis who is now the head football coach at Whitwell High School, a public school in Tennessee. He told the Times Free Press that he leads his team in prayers after every practice as well as before games.

“I'm not a coach who’s a Christian, I'm a Christian coach," Barnhart said. "To me, my faith is a big part of who I am, so it's going to be a big part of what I do as a coach.

“As a Christian, I believe our faith is being attacked at all levels, not just in school, but in government, and there's organizations trying to do away with Christianity as much as they can. We need to stand up against those type organizations and let them know we have rights, too.”

Barnhart also said he took his team to an off-campus preseason camp that featured Bible devotionals on a daily basis.

“We had 21 kids get saved at this year's camp," Barnhart said. “I want to win as much as anybody, but if I don’t win a single football game this year I feel successful because of those 21 kids who became Christians. Nothing is more important than that.”

You know what’s more important than that? Not violating the U.S. Constitution. We don’t know if Barnhart forced his players to attend the camp or if there were consequences for anyone who didn’t attend, but it’s safe to say that non-Christians probably aren’t welcome on Barnhart’s team.

The Times Free Press reported a number of similar stories from other schools.

Brent Tinker’s squad at Ider High School in Alabama is directed by its coach to recite the Lord’s Prayer as a group after games.

At Polk County High School in Tennessee, coach Derrick Davis ends his practices early on Wednesdays specifically so players can go to church.

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Annie-Laurie Gaylor, co-founder and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has been involved with many cases regarding pigskin proselytizing, wants to see these coercive prayer practices stopped.

“We’re not a Christian nation,” she the Times Free Press. “We have Christians within our nation, but there's a difference. The only reference to religion in the Constitution refers to exclusion. The government doesn't have the right to tell people they have to take part in any religion.”

Americans United has also fought official prayer at public school football games over the years. This month, AU told a Texas court that cheerleaders at Kountze High School should not be permitted to display banners with Bible verses during football games.

And last year we and the FFRF helped end official pre-game invocations at Haralson County High School in Georgia, thanks to a complaint by the parents of a football player.

We can only get involved, however, if we get a complaint. We know religious coercion can be more powerful than a hit by a linebacker, but we have a very strong teammate on our side: the U.S. Constitution.

No one should ever be forced to pray in order to play on a public school team. So as football season heats up, let us know if you experience coercive prayer. We’ll do our best to sack anyone who doesn’t respect the First Amendment.