By Gary Lloyd
CLAY — An incident at a Clay Youth Sports football game has the city of Clay buzzing.
During the last weekend of September at a Clay Youth Sports football game — the game was an away contest — a coach of a 75-pound Clay team held a pre-game prayer to God with his players, according to Clay City Manager Ronnie Dixon.
One child on the team and his family do not pray to God, but to Yahweh ben Yahweh, Dixon said. According to a May 9, 2007 article in The New York Times, Yahweh ben Yahweh was the leader of a religious, black separatist sect, before his death at age 71 in 2007. According to the article, Yahweh ben Yahweh had been convicted of “conspiring to murder white people as an initiation rite.” His name in Hebrew means “the Lord son of the Lord.”
Dixon said that when a parent of the child came out of the stands and told the coach not to pray in front of the child, the coach suggested the child stand on the sidelines while the other players pray.
Dixon said the mother of the child came to his office last week to talk about the incident. Dixon wouldn’t disclose the child or parents’ names. According to Dixon, the mother of the child said the family knew what the federal laws are about public prayer, and that the family didn’t have a problem if teams had a “student-led moment of silence” before games.
Trussville attorney Chesley Payne said the basic rule is that only private, voluntary prayer is allowed in a public educational building or function. The prayer must not disrupt the educational purpose of the institution, he said. Payne said that Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe banned a student-led prayer at a high school football game, as it was deemed to be unduly coercive in a public educational environment. He said there’s no law against a student saying a prayer by himself or herself, but there must not be effort to cause others to join in or allow a school official or teacher to lead it.
“Generally, but not always, if there is no public funding there is no issue with prayer since there can be no endorsement of religion by a governmental body,” he said. “Trussville’s youth football, for example, is a private entity. Therefore, there is probably no problem with a coach leading prayer. If a high school coach did it, there would be a big problem if someone wanted to make it one.”
Payne emphasized that his statements are general statements of law and not intended to be a comment on this particular situation.
Dixon said the Clay Youth Football league is run by the city, which runs “all youth sports played at our parks.”
Dixon said the mother told him if the team had “coach- or adult-led prayer to a God that they didn’t worship or if we isolated their child” that the city would “wind up in federal court.”
Dixon said what Clay Youth Sports Athletics Director Bill Sorrell did was “emphasize” to the coaches what federal law is, that student-led moments of silence are “appropriate.” Dixon said the mother was “very insistent” that student-led moments of silence were all she’d approve of. Dixon said he asked her to go home and think about it, but the family decided to pull their son out of the league. Dixon said the family turned in the child’s equipment and the city refunded the family’s money.
“There was nothing I could do to persuade her,” Dixon said.
Dixon said Sorrell let all Clay Youth Sports coaches in every sport know last week about the federal law. Sorrell was unavailable for comment this week.
Dixon said the city is not giving coaches any instructions about pre-game prayer. He said coaches were just reminded what federal law is. Will there no longer by pre-game prayer led by youth coaches in Clay?
“We have not given any instruction not to do that, and we won’t,” Dixon said. “It was just a simple reminder of what federal law is.”
Leia Windham, who has a son in Clay Youth Football, said she’s planned a prayer walk at Clay City Park on Sunday, Oct. 12 at 4 p.m.
“The purpose of this prayer walk is to pray for our community, our youth sports, and also for our leaders and athletes, that God will bless the sports complex and its leaders and players that we all may make decisions pleasing to Him,” Windham said.
Contact Gary Lloyd at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.