JASPER, Mo. — The Jasper School District has launched an investigation following a recent complaint that prayers were led by the head football coach, Superintendent Christina Hess said Tuesday.
“We’re following the recommendations (of) our legal counsel,” said Hess, referring to EdCounsel, a nonprofit based in Columbia with offices around the state.
Attempts to reach the coach were unsuccessful. Hess referred questions to EdCounsel, which did not respond to Globe requests for comment.
Joey Ballard, head coach of the Jasper High School football team, has been accused of regularly leading team prayers, which violates the U.S. Constitution, the Freedom From Religion Foundation argued in a letter to the district. The Wisconsin-based nonprofit advocates separation of church and state. It is the same group that three years ago asked the city of Neosho to remove a cross from Big Spring Park after several residents complained.
In the Jasper case, a concerned parent of a player on the football team alerted the foundation, the organization said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. The foundation also argued that Missouri football coaches should stop organized prayer, and that it’s illegal for Jasper School District coaching staff to lead teams in prayer.
A letter was sent to the school district by foundation staff attorney Chris Line on Oct. 6 requesting the investigation and immediate action to prevent school-sponsored prayers from occurring within any district athletic programs.
“The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools,” Line said in a letter addressed to Hess. “Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers.”
Attached to the letter were video links and screenshot images of Ballard allegedly leading student athletes in prayer.
Line stated in the letter, “Please inform us in writing of the steps you are taking to remedy this serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”
Also listed in the letter were court cases the foundation said support its position, including one in which the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a high school football coach’s history of organizing, leading and participating in prayers before games was unconstitutional because it violated the establishment clause. The court stated that that coach’s involvement in the prayer by “taking a knee” and “bowing his head,” even when the prayer was student-led, “would lead a reasonable observer to conclude he was endorsing religion,” the foundation wrote.
“Head Coach Joey Ballard’s conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee, as do the other coaches when they participate in these prayers,” Line said in the letter. “Certainly, they represent the school and the team when acting in their official roles as coaches of the Jasper High School boys football team. Therefore, they cannot lead the team in prayer, participate in prayers with students, or organize or advocate for students to lead team prayer. When a public school employee acting in an official capacity organizes and advocates for team prayer, he effectively endorses religion on the district’s behalf.”
Hess said Ballard has been with the district for two years and is aware of the claims.
“The Jasper High School coaching staff is violating students’ right of conscience in regularly holding Christian prayer,” foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement. “No one should have to pray to play.”