Superintendent: Prayer-on-Field Debate Needs Balance has partnered with LexisNexis to bring you this content.

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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)



EVANSVILLE — Just like anything else, it needs balance, Warrick County School Corp. Superintendent Brad Schneider said about coaches and prayer.

But in today's world, he said, balance "doesn't exist much."

"You try to be cognizant of everyone's beliefs and where they stack up," Schneider said. "We don't want to do anything that would make people feel uncomfortable."

While there is no specific policy in Warrick County schools about coaches and prayer, Schneider said administrators advise coaches of the law, which is "pretty specific."

"You cannot have a planned prayer or it cannot be part of an agenda," he said.

Schneider discussed coaches praying with their players after a Courier & Press photo published in October showed Reitz High School football coach Andy Hape praying with his team after a game. An unidentified local resident reported the picture to a national separation of church and state advocacy group who says Hape broke constitutional law.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based out of Madison, Wisconsin, called it a "serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment."

In the picture, Hape is in the center of a circle of players, with his head tilted down and his eyes closed. Some team members have their hands on Hape's shoulder.

"It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer, participate in student prayers, or to otherwise promote religion to students," the FFRF's attorney, Ryan Jayne, wrote in a letter sent to the EVSC last week.

EVSC spokesman Jason Woebkenberg said the school district supports those who stand with students during student-led prayer, which is acceptable at any EVSC school.

While one local district chief says no praying occurs among his teams, others say student-led prayer is OK, and one athletic director encourages his coaches to participate, so long as it's student-led.

"I think if a coach decides to have a spontaneous prayer and doesn't get objections from kids or parents, I don't think we're going to have a problem with that. ... If it got to a point where it made people feel uncomfortable, I think we'd probably have a discussion with that coach and go from there," Schneider said.

Southridge High School plans to continue to operate the way they have for many years, said Athletic Director Brett Bardwell: if students lead the voluntary prayer and coaches want to participate, they are encouraged to do so.

"We feel like if it's something the kids want to do as a bonding thing, and the coaches want to be involved in, then I think we see it as an absolute ... we see it as an absolute positive with our people," Bardwell said.

In the nearly 20 years Bardwell has served as athletic director, he said he can't recall prayer ever being an issue in the community.

"As long as it's student-led and the athletes all understand that no one is forced to participate. ... Coaches are allowed to be a part of it, encouraged to be a part of it if they want to be, but no one is forced to do it," Bardwell said.

Southridge is in a small, close-knit community, Bardwell said, and he said prayer helps the kids bond.

"I'm a big believer in FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes)," he said. "And I'm a big believer in giving kids that opportunity to see that type of thing is OK and good and healthy, if that's what they choose. But, again, we don't force our athletes."

There's no praying among North Posey sports teams, according to Superintendent Todd Camp.

There isn't a specific policy on it, but Camp said there is a practice that teams do not assemble for prayer.

"While I personally wouldn't be opposed to it, you've got to be real careful about putting someone who would be opposed to it in a situation where they don't feel comfortable in opting out," he said. "So I would hold a stance that we would not do that."

The only prayer Camp is aware of is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) club, who voluntarily meet before or after school. And sometimes outside groups use school facilities.

"My personal beliefs don't fit with everybody," Camp said. "I think everybody has a right to their beliefs and I don't really think we need to impose something on somebody when we don't have to. ... Our community out here is probably more than not in favor of prayer and church and those sorts of things. But as a rule, the school does not do that."

In the mid-90s, when Tom Kopatich was named Mount Vernon High School's basketball coach, he recalled reciting the "Our Father," also known as "The Lord's Prayer," with his team before and after games.

Most of the time, he said, players led prayer.

Kopatich said he was reminded then that coaches aren't supposed to lead prayer.

"My athletic director came to me and said, 'You need to be careful if you're leading prayer,'" Kopatich said. "'Just be very careful with that.' ... That was my very first year, and I coached several years and we did it all the way through. I didn't hear anything else."

That was about 23 years ago.

Now, as superintendent, Kopatich doesn't think Reitz High is the only school where teams gather before or after a game. He often sees most teams — both Mount Vernon and the schools they play — convene.

"I'm not sure what they do," he said. "But it's sad that it's coming to that place that we're trying to eliminate that. People have to realize, if you don't want to be there or you don't want to participate in something of that nature, you don't have to. It's a choice."

It's a tough situation, according to Kopatich.

"I've never had any community member, I've never had any parent, I've never had anyone come to me and tell me they had a concern. ... I don't mind saying that I'm a Christian," he said. "More than anything else, I was sort of saddened because I think in leadership roles there are all types of role models. I just think it's sad that it's happening."

To date, Schneider said he can't recall prayer being an issue in Warrick County schools. Every community is different, he noted, but said "most people" in the area "understand and go to prayer on a regular basis."

But there are people who don't, he said.

"We're not going to break any laws with it, certainly, and we're going to respect everyone's opinion," Schneider said. "But if that is something the team is OK with, and it's not planned, organized or put on an agenda, then so be it. We can't police that and we're not going to."

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December 3, 2017


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