A national atheist activist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said it got wind of a “constitutional violation” taking place in Oklahoma City not too long ago: A local pastor “allegedly” had been leading the Putnam City High School football team in prayer, the FFRF said in a news release.
Turns out there was no “allegedly” about it. It was a matter of public record that the Rev. Mike Keahbone of Cherokee Hills Baptist Church had been serving as the team’s chaplain. His church even “adopted” the football players, and Keahbone had become a familiar presence on and off the field.
“I think he’s gone above and beyond by being there in the thick of things with the team, on the sidelines, in the locker room, praying with them, having them in his home, investing in them,” Angela Scruggs, the church’s fan club coordinator, told The Oklahoman of her pastor’s efforts. “Seeing it all come together, just warms my heart.”
Keahbone added to the paper: “The Church is known nowadays more for what we’re against. I want to show people what we are for. I want to show that we love people.”
What did the Freedom From Religion Foundation do?
The FFRF said it got a report from a “concerned area resident” that Keahbone was leading the team in prayer, so the atheist group sent a letter to Putnam City Schools Superintendent Fred Rhodes requesting an end to the chaplaincy program — and to the praying.
“Public school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote. “Similarly, it is illegal for a public school or school-appointed volunteer to organize, sponsor or lead prayers at public high school athletic events.”
The FFRF also claimed in its letter that Keahbone’s “goal” was to “proselytize” players, calling out a quote from him that appeared in a Baptist Press article: “… if the Lord opens the door, we’ll share the Gospel with them.” But Keahbone said he “never tried to proselytize on the campus.”
How did the school district reportedly respond?
The FFRF added that a school district legal representative contacted the atheist organization recently, saying “new procedures had been put into place and that the athletic staff has been instructed that the practice of allowing access to students and engaging in prayer before any game would cease immediately.”
Putnam City Schools on Monday didn’t immediately reply to TheBlaze’s request for comment on the matter.
How did the FFRF react?
“Religion is divisive and has no place in a football team locker room,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in the news release. “We’re pleased that the school district has taken corrective action to honor their students’ rights of conscience and create a more inclusive team atmosphere.”
And the headline of the Freedom From Religion news release? “FFRF banishes prayer from OK City high school team.”
What’s the rest of the story?
Last season, Keahbone told The Oklahoman he got involved with the team after he heard that some players had no one consistently coming to games to support them in 2016.
“It broke my heart. It made me flashback to my childhood and how I felt and I don’t want other kids to feel how I felt,” he told the paper. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have a dad in my life and my mom was an alcoholic and she didn’t come to my games. She did come on senior night but that was about it. You get used to it, but it hurt.”
Keahbone told The Oklahoman that he and his church decided they’d attend home football games to cheer them on.
More from the paper:
That first year, the church learned that most of the parents that weren’t coming to the games weren’t doing so out of disinterest. Keahbone said some of them were single mothers working several jobs that prevented them from attending games. For some others, the ticket cost was prohibitive when they had to shell out money to get themselves and the players’ siblings into the games week after week.
“My initial thought going in was that there were parents who didn’t want to be there, but that wasn’t what we found at all,” he told The Oklahoman. “We found that there were good parents just trying to make ends meet.”
More from the paper:
Keahbone said the church reached out to the school and obtained some season passes to give to some of the families that weren’t attending games because money was an issue. Also, some of the church members have given rides to families who simply needed transportation to away games.
This football season, when Keahbone was asked to be the team’s chaplain, the church adopted the entire team, not just the players whose families couldn’t come out on game nights. Keahbone said one family opted out of participating, and the church accepted that and moved on to support the players and families who welcomed the church fan club.
“We’ve been put in a position where we can help families when they need help, so we’re going to do that,” he added to The Oklahoman.
And for an encore…
Last season, the team’s offensive linemen and their line coach were invited to a meal each Sunday evening at the Keahbone house, the paper said, adding that a church member had the team over for a hamburger cookout where Keahbone shared a Scripture with the players.
“It keeps us together mentally. It helps us bond — not just on the field,” senior Jose Arriola told The Oklahoman. “We’re the tightest group. We always work together.”