KIRTLAND, Ohio — A public high school in Northeast Ohio is getting a warning about what one organization calls constitutional violations for prayer before and after football games. It was prompted when a parent of a Kirtland High School football player filed a First Amendment complaint with the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF).
The Wisconsin-based non-profit advocates for atheists, agnostics and non-religious individuals and promotes the separation of church and state.
The parent, who did not wish to be publicly named for fear of retaliation against the player, told FFRF the breaking point came when players and coaches from two public high school teams, the Kirtland Hornets and the Ottawa Glandorf Titans, prayed together on the 50-yard line following the Division V state semifinal in late November.
“When you see just this complaint about this post-football game prayer - what’s the big deal? Well really it was the straw that kind of broke the camel’s back with this parent,” said Karen Heineman, a legal fellow at FFRF.
On social media, many shared photos and videos of the moment and praised the sportsmanship. Though Kirtland is labeled “the city of faith and beauty,” Heineman said faith does not belong in a public school setting, even if it’s outside of school hours.
“There’s just no way a high school student is going to take the chance of upsetting a coach. They are effectively forced,” she said. “If you’re going to do this in any kind of a school situation, your students are a captive audience. They can’t speak up, they can’t effectively say anything.”
Heineman added that the pressure to impress coaches was compounded by the team’s success. During the 2021 season, the Hornets held the nation’s longest high school winning streak and was the runner-up in the state final.
“Players want to play. Whatever coach says, whatever coach does, the players aren’t going to say no or not participate,” she said.
The complaint states coaches told the players to participate in the post-game prayer. The parent also said the Kirtland head coach routinely leads the players in the Lord’s Prayer before games, and a pep rally and dinner included a priest’s sermon.
Professor Jessie Hill, a First Amendment specialist at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law, said it is a complicated and quickly-moving area of the law.
“If a prayer is something that could be attributed to the school or looks like it has some sort of official approval behind it, then it's more likely to be problematic under the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Hill explained. “A public school can't endorse religious beliefs. It can't require or even strongly encourage students to engage in any kind of religious exercise.”
She added that the law has been interpreted differently over time and may continue to evolve with upcoming U.S. Supreme Court cases.
“How do you know when a teacher or a coach is speaking as themselves in their personal capacity, versus in their official capacity, in their job?” she said.
The FFRF sent letters to both the Kirtland and Ottawa Glandorf school districts alerting them about the parent’s complaint.
Ottawa Glandorf Superintendent Don Horstman responded to the organization and said he had several conversations with the football coach about student versus staff-led prayer and staff involvement or participation, adding that the photos and videos show the coaches did not lead the prayer following the game in November.
He also included a school board policy, which states:
“District staff members shall not use prayer, religious readings, or religious symbols as a devotional exercise or in an act of worship or celebration. The District shall not act as a disseminating agent for any person or outside agency for any religious or anti-religious document, book, or article.”
In a statement to News 5, Kirtland Local Schools Superintendent Chad VanArnhem wrote:
“The Kirtland Local Schools takes its legal obligations seriously under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In that vein, the District complies with the requirements set forth in the Establishment Clause; it has not, does not, and will not adopt any policy or rule respecting or promoting an establishment of religion.
The District has investigated the claims and took action to ensure that it continues to meet the parameters of the Establishment Clause.”
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear the case of a former Washington state public high school football coach who was fired after refusing to stop post-game prayers on the 50 yard line.
FFRF said it would likely not pursue litigation if it sees the district taking appropriate action.
News 5 reached out to other parents; they did not wish to comment on this story.
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