By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s fourth largest public school district is cracking down on religious expression at sporting events — just in time for high school football.
Orange County Public Schools has banned team chaplains, signs with Bible references and religious-oriented phrases from appearing on student-athlete clothing. Just in case, religious music is also prohibited from game tapes.
The new policies aren’t a response to complaints from parents or the school district’s 185,000 students but rather from an out-of-state anti-religion group that launched a block-and-tackle campaign against a Central Florida high school more than a year ago.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the school district — roughly the 10th largest in the country — in federal court in June 2013 and in March sent a letter to the Orange County Schools’ general counsel alleging “rampant religious activity” at Apopka High School.
On news of the recent rule changes, the Wisconsin-based organization took to spiking the pigskin.
“The same Florida school district that is allowing atheists to distribute literature is now abolishing athletic chaplaincies for its teams and removing Bible verses from sports venues and apparel,” the group said Thursday in a news release.
FFRF believes social and moral progress is best achieved in the absence of religion, according to its website. The groups says it has 20,000 members, of which 950 live in Florida.
While religion may not be for everyone, there’s been no shortage of student progress at Apopka High School, according to Todd Lamphere, now former chaplain of Apopka’s Blue Darter football team.
Lamphere, with 18 years of youth experience, told Watchdog.org “hundreds of kids have been positively impacted” through religiously motivated efforts at the school.
In a phone interview, he said almost $30,000 in funding initiatives have been contributed through the Venue Church, which he co-founded, including feeding the football team. Helping students with financial needs and family problems is a priority, he said.
“Our focus isn’t proselytizing.”
“We give kids rides (home) after practice and sometimes buy them dinner,” Lamphere said. “Some people just have an issue with everything that has to do with God.”
According to U.S. News and World Report, minority enrollment at Apopka High School is 62 percent, and 43 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.
In a city of just 41,500, the Blue Darter football team won a state championship in 2012 and finished second last year.
But an Aug. 19 memo from the school district’s top lawyer, Diego Rodriguez, cited case law and a desire to avoid costly litigation as the reason behind the district’s decisions.
“While I understand that there may be long-standing practices of the football team and other athletic teams at Apopka High School and possibly at other schools, such practices run afoul of established constitutional cases that prohibit such government-led action, even if these practices may even be endorsed and supported by the community at large,” Rodriguez wrote.
Lamphere said he doesn’t blame district officials: “They’re not bad people, they’re enforcing the law as they interpret it.”
Lamphere said he’ll follow the new rules and be available as a “life coach” for interested students.
For its part, FFRF will be watching. The group says it previously took photographs of Lamphere and some football coaches and players with heads bowed, praying. In its complaints, FFRF made it clear it monitors social media and YouTube to find instances of religious-oriented expression.
The group tried to have elements of the Venue Church barred from the Apopka High School campus. But, by law, religious organizations have the same rights as social and civic groups when it comes to using school facilities. Outright banning them would be discriminatory.
FFRF still has a number of outstanding complaints with the district, including one alleging high school graduates are holding school-related events in churches and another that says some school faculty members are”forcing students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”