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House speaker says coaches should be able to pray with players

LAND O'LAKES — Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford says public high school football coaches should be allowed to pray with their teams.

If state law doesn't allow it, he added, the law should change.

"I feel it's sad for a society like America that, as a culture, we decided in an extracurricular activity it's inappropriate for an adult to lead a prayer voluntarily with students who volunteer to pray with them," the Wesley Chapel Republican said Monday.

Weatherford's comments came days after Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning told coaches it's inappropriate for adults to initiate, lead or participate in prayer with students while working in their official roles. He cited the U.S. Constitution and school district policy. Hernando officials sent similar memos.

After seeing a story about the issue in the Tampa Bay Times on Sunday, Weatherford shot off an email to Browning.

"What's the deal with this story?" he wrote. "If a football coach wants to lead a prayer with his players on the field after a game they should be able to do that. I believe that our law we passed (last) year would allow you to set guidelines for it. If not, I will work on a bill for it next year."

Weatherford was referring to the 2012 "inspirational messages" law that gave school districts permission to adopt policies allowing students to offer inspirational messages, including prayer, at school assemblies.

That bill made clear, though, that personnel may not participate in or influence the messages. No school districts have adopted new policies under the law.

Pasco County School Board members said they intentionally did not change their rules, on lawyers' advice.

"As long as the laws are what they are, I will support the law," board member Steve Luikart said. "I would like to see some of those changed and allow some of those things that bring folks together."

Florida lawmakers tried to push past student-led prayer in the sessions leading up to last year's law, but those efforts ran into constitutional concerns. The outcome could be the same this time if Weatherford proceeds.

Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, said the state must honor coaches' right to religious freedom. But precautions also must be in place to ensure that district employees are not attempting to influence students or prioritize one faith.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said he prayed with coaches and teammates when he played football at Pasco High School.

"I found it was something we all wanted to do, or it felt that way," he said.

Looking more closely, he said, it makes sense for government to ensure no minority group is offended. He said he would respect local officials' decisions, adding that the constitutional requirements were "pretty clear."

Browning, who often acknowledges the importance of religion in his own life, said he had no problem with students initiating prayer or employees praying on their own.

"Our understanding is that district employees acting in their official capacity cannot LEAD prayers but students can do as they please," he wrote to Weatherford.

He added that he will look into whether the district needs to change its policies. District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said she did not expect it to backtrack.

Weatherford pledged to stand up for the rights of the coaches, who he said were being hurt because they were barred from expressing their religion.

"We have become this society that is so focused on being PC and not wanting to offend anyone that we are taking away everyone's rights. I just think it's sad," he said, stressing he held no ill will against Browning.

"If you had told anybody 30 to 40 years ago … that a coach wouldn't be allowed to legally lead a prayer with his players, I don't think anyone would have believed you. It's un-American."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

House speaker says coaches should be able to pray with players 09/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 2:14pm]
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