There’s No Good Reason This High School Football Coach Should Be Inviting His Players to Church

If you’re a public school football coach who happens to be a Christian, there’s a very simple rule you have to obey: Don’t mix the two worlds.

Paul Calley, the coach of the Bryant High School football team (in Arkansas), either doesn’t know that rule or he doesn’t care.

We know that because he recently invited the team members to his church for a “kickoff” celebration to the season:

Invitation from Coach Paul Calley: The Bryant Hornet Football Team Worship is this Sunday, Aug 25th at Otter Creek Assembly of God, 10:30 am kickoff. Our guest speaker will be Dr Fitz Hill, President of Arkansas Baptist College. I would like to invite anyone and everyone that would like to join us in worshiping The Lord and kicking off the football season the right way! This tradition has been a blessing to me, our staff, our players and all of our families and we would love for you to come and share in this exceptional experience with us!

The fact that the word “tradition” is used suggests that they’ve been doing this for years, too.

Imagine being a non-Christian on that team. You’d have to go to church or you might feel like your spot on the roster was in jeopardy. As Katherine Stewart wrote of such students in The Good News Club,

… they know that the locker room is no place for dissent, and that a refusal to participate [in the religious ritual] could easily be construed as a sign of a lack of commitment to the team. They have learned that they have to pray to play.

JT Eberhard posted about the incident yesterday and the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Patrick Elliott sent the district a letter a few hours later:

Bryant Public Schools has a duty to remain neutral toward religion. By one of its employees scheduling a religious service for a school athletic team, the district has breached that duty.

Coach Calley’s actions are a clear violation of the Constitution. He may not organize a religious worship service for his team, nor may he invite players to attend such a service. Bryant Public Schools must take immediate corrective action, including instructing Coach Calley to cancel this team event. The District must educate Coach Calley and all District employees that they may not lead, encourage, or participate in student religious activity.

Coach Paul Calley giving a pep talk… while a student holds a very amusing sign in the background

We’ll see how the school responds to this… but I don’t see a way out. The evidence is still on Facebook as I write this.

If this were a Muslim or atheist coach, he would’ve lost his coaching gig (at the very least) a long time ago. He and the students are free to attend the Christian churches of their choice on their own time. But there’s no excuse for using a public school’s name and resources to promote Christian worship.

(via WWJTD)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Goape

    I wonder how many atheist football coaches there are… Actually, I can only wonder because atheists don’t force their views onto their adolescent players or use their public position as a pulpit.

  • MisterTwo

    I would think that a lot of Christian kids would be uncomfortable in an Assembly of God church. I suppose they won’t do any speaking in tongues while the visitors are there.

  • Tainda

    Love the comment..

    “It’s no different than reading on someone’s page about a tailgate party”

  • sam

    The most shocking aspect of this story is that an Arkansas high school football coach actually makes a distinction between football and religion at all. I thought football was their god.

  • Dana

    Go LeeWood!

  • TravelingTxn

    IDK I say temperance with this one. The way the coach did it makes it very wrong. At the same time, I see no problem with a coach saying to his players “I am a member of such and such church, and if you ever feel like coming to any of the churches events or would be interested in hearing about anything exciting were going to be doing at the church let me know.” Preferably with an addendum stating that no special favor will be granted if you do come, so only come if you actually want to.

    If our side comes out just saying “its wrong for a coach to invite his players to church” we look like ass-hats. If instead we say “He is asking students to come to his church in such a way that they will feel pressured to go and appear to agree with his faith no matter what they’er personal beliefs are”, we look far more reasonable, and it is an accurate accusation that highlights the real problem.

  • allein

    If he’s talking to students outside of school/practice, on a personal level, that might be fine, especially if the student is the one who initiated the conversation. If he’s announcing to the team before or after practice, “hey, I go to this church and you’re welcome to come if you like” and nothing more, that’s kind of iffy, but I would err on the side of innapropriate. As it’s written in the facebook post, “The Bryant Hornet Football Team Worship” sounds like an official team event.

    There is no secular reason for him to be mixing his religion into his coaching duties in any capacity. If he really cared about the integrity of his profession, and the school he works for, he would be careful to not say anything that could be construed as pressuring his players to practice/profess any kind of religion. If they or their parents believe religion is important, they are likely already going to a church, and it’s not his place to try to persuade them to worship differently, and if they don’t find it important, it is not his place to instill that in them.

  • M.S.

    LOL! “Beat Catholic”. How funny. You know I was going to say as a Catholic, this would even make me feel uncomfortable. Of COURSE you would feel obligated to go out of fear that you might lose playing time to other players who DID attend. So yeah, I think this is definitely a conflict of interest.

  • eric

    No, no temperance. Its coercive pretty much any time, anywhere, because under practically whatever circumstances it happens, he’s still going to have the power over your (HS sports) career when you both come back on school grounds.
    Look, it’s like your boss asking you out on a date. Does it become less coercive if he/she does it at 7:59am, in the parking lot, rather than 8:01am, in the worplace?
    The boss thing might not be coercive if you happened to end up at the same bar after work, get to talking, and then they ask you out. Likewise, the coach inviting you to his church is probably okay if it happens after he’s sat down next to you in the pew in your church. But outside of some very exceptional circumstances, I have a hard time seeing this as non-coercive.

  • SeekerLancer

    Sorry SueEllen, but it’s a lot different.

  • SeekerLancer

    If it were the coach’s personal Facebook then sure he can say whatever he wants about his church. However he’s posting through the team’s Facebook so no, this is unacceptable.

  • Danny B.

    Wow, there are actually 2 voices of reason on that FB page. Very impressed with their civility, then of course the christian rebuttal is “Please don’t report this, they’re good people!”

  • SeekerLancer

    Yes. The fact that it’s a church and state issue flies completely over her head. It makes me realize that most of the time they have no idea they’re doing something wrong.

  • David Kopp

    Because you can do however much wrong you want as long as you’re “good people”, right?

  • Gerry Mooney

    Hey hemant, there’s a banner ad for “Visit Orlando” right across the middle of my screen in this comment thread! Not good! I can “expand” it but I can’t get rid of it. I’m using Firefox on a pc.

  • Anna

    Yup, it’s definitely not just a problem for atheists. I mean, Assemblies of God is hardcore Pentecostal. There’s no way Catholics or mainline Protestants would feel comfortable at such an event, to say nothing of Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, or atheists.

  • M.S.

    Could you imagine the shit storm that would ensue if the coach was Muslim and he wanted to host this get together at a Mosque.
    There are some pretty ignorant commenters on that facebook post (I hated myself enough to go read them) and I think that is the point they miss. They just assume everyone else believes exactly what they do….

  • Houndentenor

    In that part of the country, it’s not even about being religious/not religious or being Christian/non-Christian. Just belonging to a different denomination can create problems. Imagine being a Lutheran or Episcopalian and being constantly pressured to go to the coach’s mega-church or charismatic congregation?

  • Houndentenor

    It’s not wrong because they did it. If someone did the opposite they’d be throwing a much bigger fit than anyone is going to throw over what happened. People like this are completely incapable of comprehending that other people have the same rights and freedoms they have. In fact, if anyone stands up for someone else’s rights they consider that a violation of their freedom. Listen to any Christian radio station. They rant on about this kind of thing all day long.

  • Free

    Too many assumptions here. The guy is sending out an invitation which is perfectly legal. No one is forced. To assume their lack of participation in this event will affect their position on the team is to be determined. If so we have a problem. However too early to tell. This post amounts to nothing more than speculation. Nothing illegal here just preference.

  • Aundrea

    Well, unfortunately for my tiny hometown’s PUBLIC high school, you still get a real youth minister to pray over your football players before games AND come into your classroom to talk about Jesus! during school hours…

    Check out the photos posted on August 16th and August 10th. I just hope this phases out before my child is old enough to attend this high school.

  • pRinzler

    Would you feel any differently if the coach was Muslim? Would you feel any differently if the coach had invited the students to a Democratic party event? A Republican party event?

    If you do feel differently about any of those scenarios, are they analogous to the actual scenario?

    I’m not sure where these questions might lead.

  • Taz

    I wouldn’t bet on it being “perfectly legal”. The invitation was on the school’s Facebook page, not the coach’s. In their letter the Freedom From Religion Foundation called it “a clear violation of the Constitution”, and they have some expertise in these matters.

  • TheG

    Nobody has to be “forced” for it to be illegal. There just has to be “coercion”.
    You know, sort of like how a CEO can get in trouble for suggesting it might be a good idea for your career to sleep with him. He’s not raping anyone, but it sure as hell ain’t cricket.

  • Jasper

    If you have standing (which sounds like you will), you should contact the FFRF

  • Guest

    Probably because he was under the impression that America was a country that protected the free exercise of religion. Silly boy.

  • Dez

    Screw him for using his school position and authority to coerce his players to attend.

  • Sad

    It must be a lonely/miserable life worrying about injustices that don’t exist! If only you could create some controversy about something to make yourself feel better about your own life. You hide behind assumptions about places and people you know nothing about. Don’t confuse choice with force! To think that your cause is to make sure no one says Jesus when their not supposed to is sad. What a fine gift to humanity (considering that is all you hold on to). Misery loves company! Your entitled to your belief and opinion. But nothing is forced accepted your reaching and crying foul. Was there an athlete that complained? No. Was there a community member? No. Was there some miserable group 1000 miles away that needed attention. You bet. So please continue to enlighten us on your “higher” way of thinking. The argument that “if a Muslim would have done it” is absurd. A Muslim invitation would be more protected than the president. Every left wing organization salivates at that opportunity. All I can say is get a life! Your looking far and wide for miserable company

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    It must be sad and miserable the way you’ve separated yourself from God by judging and ignorantly libeling people over issues you didn’t even bother to learn about.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Poor, sad dear. So sad that you’re ignorant of Constitutional law and arrogant enough to talk about it anyway. Poor dear.

  • What a shame

    So have you actually been to “that part of the country?” Obviously not by the ignorance of your comment. Being from “that part of the country” and growing up in a very conservative church of a different denomination, I switched denominations and have found the Assembly of God denomination nothing but a comfortable, welcome change. It is not about what denomination you are, as Christians, we all have the common belief in the one and only God. As far as being pressured to go to the coach’s “mega-church”, there is nothing of the sort. It was simply a friendly invite, not a mandatory one. I highly doubt that the coach was taking attendance to see who showed up and who didn’t, so that he could cut their playing time. As Christians, we strive to treat everyone equally and save all that we can. If you so choose to have a different belief, we will not judge you, we will simply pray that you will see the light before it is too late. From the looks of this article and the comments made on it, you all are the ones throwing out the judgements. Not the coach extending an optional invitation to his players to attend a church service.

  • Houndentenor

    Yes, I have. I live in the Bible belt. And yes, you are free to invite me to your church. I’m also free to say no. I’ll be nice about it once. But some people just won’t take no. And they don’t stop just because you go to a different church since that’s not the “right” one. Light? I was raised in the Christian church, went to many kinds (still do for musical gigs) and the only light there is from some very nice people in the more liberal churches. All I see in the fundamentalist churches is darkness. My latest visit to one was yesterday, btw. Not only is it as bad as I remembered, it’s actually worse. No thank you.

    No, the coach has overstepped his bounds as a state employee by officially inviting his players to his church. Would you like it if your kids’ coach invited them to services for another religion? What if he invited them all to pray to Allah five times a day? Would you be okay with that?

  • Seriously?

    This argument has been made so many other times it’s getting boring, yet y’all keep beating the same horse again and again.

    No, you do not HAVE to go to the service. No one is being forced to. They are being invited to an outside school function. The service does NOT take part on school grounds, or on school time. No one’s rights are being violated here.

    Is there peer pressure to go? Perhaps. But no more peer pressure is being experienced here than a basketball student being asked to cheat on a quiz to get his grades up, a student who hangs out with the thespians and is asked if they want some weed, or a new member of the drum-line being asked if they want a drink.

    They don’t HAVE to go along with it. They can say no. Again, it’s not happening at school and it’s not a school sponsored event from what it looks like to me. Can a school honor its student athletes at a church? No. Can a church honor their student athletes at church? Yes. The coach isn’t preaching. He’s just informing them of a celebration that is taking place.

    If the coach was a Muslim and the tables were reversed, I would simply take a stand and say I’m not going. If asked why not I would explain. Atheist teens can do the same thing. They can say they don’t go to churches, don’t believe in God, feel uncomfortable in the church crowd whatever. Wow.

  • seriously?

    I wouldn’t mind that at all. My kid by that age would be able to make an informed decision of yes or no based off the information that he has taken in in his first 15 years of life. He would also realize the importance that some people place on religion so his answer (either way) would be full of respect either way.

    If my child is in high school and I’m trying to make all of his decisions for him still, then I’m not parenting very much. Instead I’m still dictating to him like a 3 year old. Those are helicopter parents and that style should be frowned on. Everyone is going to have their own level of comfort with letting their children explore things on their own. About the only positive that my young son has of me being his dad is that I’ve lived a lot of life in my short time and have done my homework so I can have a informed, rational conversation with him before and afterwards.

    I am not afraid to have my child be exposed to new things. Are you? It certainly sounds like you have a misconception floating around that all “good” Christians never do anything outside of their Holy Huddle. While misconceptions do exist for a reason, this is not always the case tenor and should not be assumed.

  • seriously?

    This brings up a whole new set of questions that the education world is still trying to figure out: Is it okay to have a coach/teacher ran FB page. Does this FB page have district oversight? etc.

    I’m a XC coach (no worries, I don’t invite student-athletes to church). I do have a team FB page that the district doesn’t know about. Not because I’m hiding anything. I use it to inform my runners of local races during the offseason and to give them motivational quotes etc.

    If the school district asked I would of course tell them about it. If there was a channel to go through first before setting up such a page, I would gladly do so. But for the majority of schools, these things aren’t in place yet. Policies are still being made, etc.

    I’m not so sure that it would be okay for the coach to direct something to his athletes about church, even if it was his personal page or not. He’s still their coach. Teaching is an interesting gig since we deal with minors and are state employees. Sometimes the lines are blurred more than we would like

  • seriously?

    No, I would not feel any different. Why is this the same argument every time?

    1: Christian does something “religious” you don’t like and don’t
    agree with
    2: You become upset with Christians
    3: Person 2, who may or may not be a Christian, says they think it
    might be okay for them to do their thing afterall
    4: Person originally ENRAGED assumes that person 2 is a) a Christian and b) has the same lack of tolerance that the upset atheist is experiencing. So they apply the “what if it were an atheist or a muslim doing this to your child” attempt.

    This model is old, cliché, and simply doesn’t work. Please stop. Thanks!

  • seriously?

    What judgment took place? All I see is someone describing a pattern that continually rises up to the occasion whenever anyone does something that atheists don’t like. It’s the same pattern that talk-show hosts use (both liberal and conservative).

    No judgment. I didn’t even see a label in sad’s post.

  • pRinzler

    Thanks for your answer that a Muslim wouldn’t have changed your opinion. I applaud that consistency. I asked the question because, in my experience, not everyone feels that way.

    However, your #1 is too broad. It’s not merely a religious person doing something someone doesn’t like. The issue is when a person, acting in an official role in an arm of the government, does something religious. That may or may not apply in this case, but that’s the question. The question isn’t about religious activity with no qualification.

    Who is person you’re saying is enraged? I sure hope it’s not me, because I’m not.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Then you should learn to read your own posts more closely, Sad/seriously.

  • SeekerLancer

    Good point. It’s definitely something to think about.

  • seriously?

    Yes I realize I made some obvious labels. But sad? What label did that poster use?

  • seriously?

    I’m just generalizing. My apologies. I just feel like people today have to have something that enrages them or they aren’t satisfied. Weird eh?

    I can’t say that I totally agree or disagree with your statement about “doing something religious” That too seems a bit broad. Sometimes I eat my lunch in my classroom. Especially if I don’t need it to be microwaved. Sometimes my students hang out in my room. Does this mean that I can’t pray quietly before I eat my meal? Now, if a student asks about it do I ignore them? Do I change the topic? Or am I free to discuss it. I believe it can be done in a “this is what I believe tone” and not a “this is what is right tone” I know, there are too many of the latter types out there though :/

    Not everything is a cleanly defined as black or white. That’s why we get to have these discussions. I do appreciate the one on this thread as everyone seems civil.

  • seriously?

    FWIW, I would NEVER bring up the conversation myself. It doesn’t really belong in the classroom and it isn’t my job to share my beliefs. I don’t think it’s wrong to share if asked though. If someone else shared their beliefs in an appropriate way, I wouldn’t complain to that either. Regardless of what their beliefs.

    Sadly, there is a lot of judging that takes place though in the world :(

  • Feminerd

    You say “I said a quiet prayer before I ate” and leave it at that. You don’t mention to whom, you don’t play it up, and you don’t indicate a willingness to continue the conversation. As a teacher, you have an obligation to keep your religion out of the classroom as much as possible. If the student tries to continue the conversation, you can give a brief “this is what I believe” spiel and then say that you’re done discussing the matter. Hopefully said spiel doesn’t include “and I believe people who think differently are going to Hell”, but it could, I suppose.

    The appropriateness of the conversation is very dependent on the age of the kids, of course. Elementary school children are far more likely to be influenced by a teacher and miss the nuance of “I believe” vs. “It is so”, so the conversation is best avoided altogether with children under the age of 11 or 12.

  • pRinzler

    “Not everything is a cleanly defined as black or white.”

    No argument there (with two exceptions: black, and white). ; )

    “Does this mean that I can’t pray quietly before I eat my meal?”

    I think that is fine. It’s just you, you’re not involving your students. That’s the difference between your scenario and the scenario in the OP.

    “Now, if a student asks about it do I ignore them?” I don’t think so, although I can imagine a hypothetical in which a student asks and then the teacher goes on for two hours, keeping the student there, but aside from that type of thing, I don’t see a problem there.

  • quickshot

    My football coach used to be against religion because it conflicted with football

  • quickshot

    at least, no true atheist would

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    The fallacy doesn’t apply.

  • roald

    Correct, you do not have to go to the service. The coach does not have to let you play either. Look up quid pro quo.

    What would you say if the coach told you to cheat to get your grades up, the drama coach offering everyone to come to her home for weed, the music teacher having a drinking party at his home?