Several public high school football coaches in Westmoreland, Tenn. are in trouble for bowing their heads during a student-led prayer before a recent game.
According to local NBC affiliate WSMV, the coaches didn’t say anything aloud themselves, but bowed their heads in observance alongside the students.
Word got back to the principal and the school district, which found the coaches’ participation to be an uncomfortable mix of religion and public school.
“We’ve been telling our principals to kind of be looking for those things, because that is kind of a shift in how things have been done,” district spokesman Jeremy Johnson told WSMV. “It can in no way appear like it’s endorsed by Sumner County Schools personnel.”
When asked whether bowing one’s head was considered “endorsing,” Johnson said it “depends what it looks like.”
“That’s where you kind of get into the gray area that we’re having to deal with,” he said.
The coaches weren’t disciplined, but were made to sign letters indicating they understood the school’s policy, which prohibits staff from appearing to participate in a student prayer in any way, even if it takes place after hours.
According to WSMV, the incident comes months after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the district for violating the separation of church and state, saying teachers led students in Bible studies, invited a pastor to come speak to students during lunch and at least one instructor displayed a 10-inch cross in their classroom.
But resident Tony Bentle, who has been refereeing football games in the town for years, said crackdown “blew [his] mind.”
“We’re just respectful, God-fearing people up here,” he said. “Nobody in this town is offended if you pray. Nobody.”
Further violations of the policy could lead to disciplinary action for the coaches.
“That’s a violation of their rights. We should be able to bow our heads in reverence to God, wherever we are,” Bentle said. “It’s time we draw a line in the sand and say, you know, this is ridiculous.”