ACLU Declares Victory in Ohio School Where Football Coach Led Prayers, Read Scripture

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
October 19, 1999 12:00 am

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CLEVELAND — An eight year history of religious indoctrination of student athletes at an Ohio public school ended today with the successful resolution of a lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio announced today.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in June 1999 against the London City School District, said that members of the London High School Coaching staff had led prayers and passed out scriptural verse to players, breaching the First Amendment wall of separation between church and state.

For years, local citizens in London had complained that these teaching practices were inappropriate.

The settlement, which ACLU attorneys have been quietly negotiating with lawyers for the district and the coaches since early last month, prohibits future acts of religious indoctrination and establishes a system for reporting violations of the agreement to the United States District Court in Columbus.

Raymond Vasvari, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio, called the settlement a complete victory. “We filed suit for one reason only: to put a stop to a long history of First Amendment violations at London High School,” he said. “When it became clear that the school district and the coaches were willing to abide by the law, we had achieved our purpose.”

During discovery depositions held in the last two weeks, Head Coach David Daubenmire admitted to leading the football team in the Lord’s Prayer after games, passing out a scriptural verse to team members, allowing ministers to lead the team in prayer, and to using Bible stories as a part of certain team meetings. Daubenmire denied having engaged in such misconduct after November 1997, although witnesses told the ACLU that such conduct persisted into the fall of 1998.

The settlement comes just one day before the case was scheduled to be heard in Federal Court. Judge James Graham had set a hearing for today, but canceled yesterday afternoon, when attorneys agreed that a settlement seemed likely. Yesterday evening, the London School Board voted unanimously to accept the terms offered by the ACLU.

“For the first time in eight years, parents can send their kids to London High School secure in the knowledge that the school district and its employees are taking the rule of law seriously,” Vasvari said.

In addition, the settlement, which has now been signed by attorneys for all parties, provides a mechanism to ensure that future violations of the First Amendment will not go unpunished.

Under the agreement, for the next two years the principal of London High School must report all complaints of religious activity not only to the district superintendent, but also to the ACLU.

“This is really a remarkable settlement, because it keeps the ACLU involved in the process of monitoring compliance with the law for two full years,” Vasvari said. “Once we receive a report of misconduct, we have the opportunity to investigate it, and if need be, to report it to the Federal Court, who under the agreement will supervise compliance with the law until October 2001.”

Violations of the Establishment Clause could result in a citation for contempt of court. A second agreement, previously ratified by the lawyers in the case, awards the ACLU nearly $18,000 in attorney fees and court costs.

“The amount was a compromise, and somewhat less than what we feel we have earned,” Vasvari added. “But we don’t bring cases to make money or to cash in on other people’s insurance policies — we bring cases to protect the Constitution,” he said. “We have accomplished that in London, and we’re proud of that.”

London High School is a public school. Since 1963, the United States Supreme Court has held that public school employees may not engage students in religious activities without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In a separate case, the ACLU is still defending seven members of the London community who had criticized Coach Daubenmire’s religious activities.

And in a similar ACLU case that has been appealed to the United States Supreme Court, a Texas appeals court ruled earlier this year that student-led prayers before Texas public high school football games are unconstitutional. The high court has not yet indicated whether it will review that decision.

The ACLU has fought the school prayer battle on many fronts. Last April, the ACLU ran a national op-ed advertisement in The New York Times asking Americans to consider the fate of religious freedom if government is allowed to determine how students pray in school. The ACLU’s school prayer op-ed ad is online at /forms/nytimesad041698.html.

And acting on behalf of families who objected to government-imposed worship in public schools, the ACLU has also successfully challenged official classroom prayer practices in Mississippi, Alabama and several other states.

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