Alabama high school officials face challenges related to religion

Faith and football — many Alabamians would say that they’re both a part of the fabric of Alabama, at least historically speaking.

But these days, getting the two to play well together isn’t as easy as it used to be.

School districts are faced more and more with the tension between what’s always been — like prayers before high school football games — and challenges from “nontheism” organizations.

Leeds High School, for instance, came under fire back in early October when Leeds City Schools Superintendent John Moore received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) about the band’s halftime show.

The letter alleged that the band’s program was “promoting religion in school-sponsored performances,” according to the St. Clair News Aegis.

The FFRF is a national non-profit agency based in Wisconsin that says its “purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.”

“A concerned local parent informed FFRF that the Leeds High School band in Leeds, Ala., regularly performs a halftime show designed to resemble a Christian church service,” FFRF stated in an Oct. 2 press release.

“The performance features Christian-themed music and involves church pews set up on the field. Some of the songs performed during this show include: ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken,’ ‘I Saw the Light,’ ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot,’ ‘Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee’ and ‘Amazing Grace.’ The parent also reports that the band director has said that members of the band who do not support this religious routine can ‘drop out of band.’”

Moore said the wording in the complaint is a mischaracterization of the band director.

“He (band director Chip Wise) is a longtime employee of the school system and is well thought of in the community,” Moore said, according to the News Aegis. “He would never say that.”

While the FFRF release focuses on the traditionally religious songs performed, Moore said the halftime show and band performance also includes songs from Beethoven, a ’60s pop song and a variety of other songs. All of the songs are instrumental and do not include singing or lyrics.

In the letter and press release, FFRF asked Leeds City Schools officials to ensure that the district is not impermissibly promoting religion in school-sponsored performances.

“(FFRF) is wrongly pointing out that we’re trying to have church,” Moore said, according to the News Aegis. “We have had complete support for the program that I’m aware of.”

While the battle happens in local school districts, churches are finding their own ways to support football players with faith-based ministries. For example, Shoal Creek Baptist Church, Priceville, hosted Meet the Bulldogs in August as a kickoff to the Priceville High School football season.

The church provided lunch after the morning worship for all of the coaches, teachers and students.

Rick Burgess, co-host of the popular syndicated “The Rick and Bubba Show” radio program, “challenged the Bulldogs and all that were in attendance to let Jesus lead them in all they do,” said Gary Linville, pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist.

“It’s a good opportunity to share the gospel with them,” Linville said.

The church also tailgates sometimes at games to give out free hotdogs to “show the love of Christ to our community,” he said. (TAB)