An Alabama school district stopped public prayers before high school football games following a complaint from an atheist group.
Jefferson County Schools in Alabama has decided to stop prayers held over the loudspeaker before high school football games after an atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a letter in September 2021 arguing that such prayers are "inappropriate and unconstitutional."
According to WIAT-TV, Gardendale High School and Pinson Valley High School were both starting high school football games over their loudspeakers with a prayer. This caused FFRF to reach out and ask officials to stop the practice.
"It is unconstitutional for a public school to sponsor religious messages at school athletic events," the atheist group argued in a statement. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools."
The Alabama school district responded through an attorney via a letter last month that said the prayers would no longer be done. Faithwire reported that according to the letter, "The Superintendent met with school principals, and the administration will not allow prayer at school-sponsored events, including football games."
Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Walter Gonsoulin confirmed that the matter was resolved "administratively" and did not require action from the board or any new policy from the body. He added that the government is bound by previous court policy.
"The Board's adherence to those rulings should not be understood as a rejection of students' religious rights and liberties in the school setting," Gonsoulin explained. "The Jefferson County Board of Education remains firmly committed to respecting and protecting those rights and liberties in every way permitted by the Constitution and laws of the United States."
Meanwhile, FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, who said the atheist group is "pleased" with the developments, said that "No public school event should ever be opened with a prayer." Some people, however, disagreed with removing the pre-game prayers.
On April 8, Gonsoulin released another statement that offered additional context into the decision to remove pre-game prayers. According to the most recent press release, the initial attorney's response sent to FFRF was done in "good faith" but was not meant to "provide a comprehensive analysis of school prayer in every context." It also reported that the superintendent and board did not approve of the initial letter before it was sent to the FFRF.
In the new press release, the school district said they would defend "voluntary religions expression" and detailed plans to support Joseph Kennedy, a coach from Washington state who is unaffiliated with the Alabama school district, yet faces religious persecution himself after being banned from praying after football games with team members and students. Kennedy's case was taken to the Supreme Court after his lawsuit against Bremerton School District was rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in July 2021.
"Coach Kennedy's case is pending before the United States Supreme Court and should be decided later this year," the press release said after declaring their support for Kennedy, which involves "directing" their attorneys to prepare for a "formal resolution" for the coach.