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Posted: Wednesday, August 27th 2014 at 10:55am

Atheist group wants written policy restricting Hall Co. coaches' involvement in prayer

By Brian Stewart Staff
EMAIL STORY CONTACT EDITOR PRINT
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The AHA included this photo in its latest media release about coach-led/participant prayer in Hall County schools. This photo pictures players from North Hall High School and Gilmer County High School at a game earlier this month. The coaches are believed to be from Gilmer County.
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The atheist group that has threatened to sue the Hall County School System over coach-led prayer at Chestatee High School said Wednesday a written response from the lawyer for the district doesn't go far enough in restricting school employees and religious interactions with students.

Two weeks ago, the American Humanist Association (AHA) sent a letter to Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield saying it had received allegations that coaches were leading athletic teams in prayer at Chestatee High School and that biblical verses were printed on certain documents related to athletic events at the school. (See second link below.)

Schofield sent an email to all school employees after the initial letter from the AHA, telling all employees they "must not be leading students in prayer during school or school-sponsored activities, nor may they require or pressure students to participate in religious activities."

AHA lawyer Monica Miller said by phone Wednesday that while the memo is a step in the right direction, it does not adequately address the overall issues presented by the AHA.

"It didn't really address a lot of the concerns in our letter, one of which was the coaches participating in prayer, which the [legal] cases make very clear is equally unconstitutional in addition to leading prayers," said Miller.

On Tuesday, Phillip Hartley of the Gainesville law firm Hartley, Harben, and Hawkins, LLP wrote a letter to the AHA on behalf of the Hall County School System responding to the group's first letter. (See first link below.)

In responding to Hartley's letter, the AHA's Appignani Humanist Legal Center, in a letter it released Wednesday, said Wednesday it "appreciate(s) that Superintendent [Will] Schofield is committed to complying with the Establishment Clause." But the letter says that the school system is incorrect in its assertion that the incidents in question happened over a year ago.

Furthermore, the AHA says they've received numerous reports from parents and students that Christian-based prayer is led by faculty in other areas of the school, including the marching band and wrestling team.

The letter also includes a picture taken "on or around August 15, 2014" at a North Hall High School-Gilmer County High School football scrimmage. It shows both teams kneeling in apparent prayer with what appear to be coaches standing with their heads bowed. Those coaches, however, are not from the Hall County School System, according to school officials.

In addition, the AHA says in its latest correspondence that it has been told one non-Christian student in the county school system felt pressured to the point of pretending to be Christian "for fear of being ostracized by her friends."

The AHA included a list of steps that it says the school system can follow in order to avoid a lawsuit. They ask that the schools:

1) Adopt a written policy prohibiting teachers, coaches and other school officials from leading, endorsing, facilitating, and participating in prayer with students.

2) Eliminate all religious references from official team documents and promotional materials and adopt a written policy prohibiting the same.

3) Enforce said written policies by monitoring games and practices and by sanctioning school officials for non-compliance with the penalties assessed for similar school code violations.

Link: AHA response
Link: Hall Co response
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