I sometimes wonder why public school teachers and administrators and coaches feel the need to bring their religion to work. I know they want to proselytize and save everyone, but it’s not always clear if they’re breaking the law on purpose or if they just don’t understand it.
It’s even worse when they brag about preaching Christianity on the local news, which is what NorthWood High School (IN) girls’ soccer coach Phil Ummel last month. Every three years, he takes his team on a mission trip — he literally calls it a mission trip — to Panama, so everyone can spread the word of Christ.
“This is the third one I’ve taken, and the goal is to do it every three years,” said Phil Ummel, the head coach for the ladies. “The goal is every kid once in their high school career gets to go on one of these trips with us.”
Ummel was inspired to start the trips back when he started coaching the team.
“I had a girl who took a trip to a baby center in Kenya and just came back raving about the experience and how it changed her life and how impactful it was,” Ummel said. “And I started brainstorming, how can we actually do this with an entire team?“
The fact that several of the athletes said it was a life-changing trip is irrelevant. It’s also irrelevant that they may have helped people when they were there. This is a public school coach encouraging students to preach Christianity on a trip out of the country. It doesn’t get more obviously illegal than that.
If this trip is so important, the students can go on their own through a local church. It’s not the job of their soccer coach to double as a pastor.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling on the District to put a stop to this immediately.
The NorthWood High School girl’s soccer team, part of Wa-Nee Community Schools in Nappanee, took a mission trip to Panama last month. The excursion had been organized by the head coach through association with SCORE International, a short-term mission organization with an explicitly Christian agenda.
On its website, SCORE — which stands for “Sharing Christ Our Redeemer Enterprises” — lists its core values as including evangelizing the “lost” and expressing the Gospel. Its vision statement is: “To glorify God through missions in obedience to the Great Commission.” (Matt. 28:19–20, 1 Peter 4:7–11.)
And the fact that participation in the mission trip was voluntary is irrelevant. Time and again, courts have rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation. Similarly, the fact that SCORE is a private organization does not make the mission trip constitutional. Ummel’s promotion of and participation in the mission trip while representing Wa-Nee Community Schools as a soccer coach are flagrant violations of the Establishment Clause.
“Public school officials in their professional capacities may not proselytize or encourage students to engage in religious activities, and must remain impartial in all matters regarding religion,” writes FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne to Superintendent Joe Sabo. “Coach Ummel did not remain neutral here; he used his position as a district employee in order to promote his personal religion, and recruited his student athletes to help him.”
If you’re still unsure about how big of a problem this is, imagine a Muslim coach at a public school urging students to spread Islam with him in another country. Fox News would stop talking about whatever non-Trump distraction they’re airing and focus on this for days.
And since Ummel doesn’t care about the ramifications of his trip, he might not get that there’s an undue pressure on his players to join him on this trip. It’s a way to get in his good graces, which could mean more playing time, which could lead to more success and scholarships. Even if it’s a voluntary trip, saying no because they’re not Christian means they won’t get to build the same kind of bond with Ummel as the other players.
His intentions could be entirely positive. That doesn’t make this legal or ethical.