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Coach kneeling in prayer with team prompts complaint

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By NICOLE ZEMA
nzema@thewakullanews.net

Wakulla County Schools athletic coaches, teachers, and club sponsors will undergo a refresher training session on Feb. 1, after the school district received notification from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, saying that Wakulla Middle School Football Coach Eddie Metcalf participated in a student-led prayer with his team immediately after at the Oct. 7 game.
The U.S. Supreme Court dictates that while student-initiated prayers are allowed on public school campuses, administration, teachers or coaches cannot lead or participate in prayers.
A video depicting the team prayer was submitted to the foundation for review, which prompted the notice sent to the school district. The FFRF said the individual(s) who submitted the video and complaint will remain confidential, and their identity is not subject to public record.
A FFRF press release dated Nov. 22 said it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer, as decided by the Supreme Court. Furthermore, an FFRF attorney said, “Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayer themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers.”
Coach Metcalf can be seen kneeling with the students in the video as players recite the Lord’s Prayer, following the traditional team chant at the game’s end.
As the press release has picked up traction on social media, Superintendent Robert Pearce clarified the Wakulla County School Board’s policy on prayer mirrors the law.  
“We have policy in our personnel handbook. That policy tracks the U.S. Constitution and controlling precedent interpreting the U.S. Constitution,” Pearce said. “It goes back to separation of church and state. Employees have a right to pray as an individual. However, while acting as an agent of the government, an employee cannot lead or participate in prayer of any faith – Muslim, Christian, Jewish – you name it. But students can pray. It has to be student led and originated by students.”
Superintendent Pearce said Coach Metcalf had been trained on the law about two years ago, when the formation of a cross on the Wakulla High School football field resulted in a complaint from an ACLU offshoot.
“There was a demand that we deal with separation of church and state,” Pearce said. Legal counsel was brought in, who went over the law with the coaches, including Metcalf.  
The superintendent addressed the “appropriate disciplinary action” against Coach Metcalf mentioned in the press release. The refresher course might be considered disciplinary, but is not necessarily a punishment.
“If informing them on the law, and what coaches can and can’t do in future, is disciplinary – then that’s disciplinary.”
Coach Metcalf told The News that he was clear on the law prohibiting coach-led prayers, but saw kneeling with his players as more of a gray area.

“The prayer in question was a student-initiated prayer, and I was kneeling with them,” Metcalf said. “I didn’t know (I couldn’t); I thought it was a gray area. But since then I’ve been instructed on that particular situation. When the kids start to pray, I have to walk away and turn my back. That’s a time when I unfortunately have to do something I don’t agree with. But I don’t want to hurt the students or the school district.”
School districts in Florida have been legally challenged for similar issues in the past. An ACLU lawsuit was filed in 2009 on behalf of two Pace High School students who claimed school officials promoted prayer and religion at the school. The school district admitted liability and settled for $200,000 in legal fees.
The superintendent has a personal opinion about the FFRF’s reaction to the coach-led prayer.
“As a Christian myself with a strong faith base, I have strong feelings about this, but I was elected to office under oath to lead, given the laws of the state and Constitution, and at the same time ensure students and employees are afforded their rights,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a tough pill to swallow. The reality is – that’s the law, and I have to be cognizant, regardless of personal feelings. I swore an oath to uphold the laws of the State of Florida and U.S. government. I’m required to follow those laws, but also ensure students have the right and freedom to pray. I’m all for it. We just have to follow rules of engagement.”
All coaches and extra-curricular sponsors, new and established, will participate in the Feb. 1 refresher training, Pearce said.
The News contacted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor at the foundation’s headquarters in Madison, Wis., who said a lawsuit is not the end-game.
“We are more optimistic than that,” Gaylor said. “It’s more of a waiting game of education and persuasion. We stop many, many coach-led prayers on a given month. Schools might not be aware of the laws, but we have more than 65 years of Supreme Court precedents, and strong language against school prayer. We’ve never had to sue over a coach-led prayer because we do prevail.”
Gaylor said 99 percent of the time a complaint is submitted by a student, parent or school district employee.
The FFRF website asserts: “In a few school districts, Muslims outnumber other religions. Should Christian minorities march into the hall with their ears covered while the principal prays to Allah over the intercom?”
The complaint might feel like a rural district like Wakulla is being “picked on.” However, Gaylor said many people were brought up in public school districts where violations were ongoing throughout an individual’s whole history of being a student, “raised with false information that schools can inculcate Christianity. I lay blame on that, in part,” she said.
Gaylor described emails and memes she received from Wakulla citizens over the past days that were sharply critical of the foundation and its stance on the issue, but did not divulge names.
Social media was buzzing with comments in reaction to the press release, overwhelmingly in support of Coach Metcalf. Commissioner Ralph Thomas even posted a letter citizens can sign, acknowledging their First Amendment rights, demanding that the school board never enact a policy that establishes any religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof.
“I am humbled by the support that I’ve seen, to say the least,” Metcalf said. “There’s a lot of good people in Wakulla County and I appreciate the support.”