CAMERON, Mo. – A church-state watchdog group is calling on administrators in Cameron to put a stop to coach-led prayers at high school football games.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that works to “protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state,” said it received a complaint from someone in the community concerning the alleged actions by head football coach Jeff Wallace and assistant coach David Stucky.
“Coaches were praying with players, reading Bible verses,” said Chris Line, a FFRF staff attorney. “We also understand they were sometimes bringing in outside preachers to talk to players.”
The coaches reportedly have been holding prayer sessions on the 50-yard line after games. Line warned school-sponsored prayers violate the First Amendment.
“It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to be leading their team in religious prayer and religious worship,” he said.
Morgan Gitthens, a Cameron resident, called the coaches’ actions harmless.
“I don’t believe in pushing everybody’s beliefs on each other. But if they want to pray and the students are good with it, then why not?” she said.
Fellow resident Tim Harrell agreed.
“It’s sad that they’re coming down on [the coaches] because Cameron hasn’t had a good team in a few years,” Harell said. “I think [they're] building character among the boys.”
Harrell’s son played football at Cameron High before graduating in 2015. Harrell was also an athlete and recalled praying with his teams before games in his younger years.
“The way I’ve seen it done in sports is you allow the kid to pray on beliefs that are personal to them,” he said.
Harrell said the leadership he saw from his coaches is one of the reasons he became a pastor, a role he’s held for 35 years. He’s currently the pastor at Crossroads Assembly of God in Cameron.
“We have a lot of trouble with young people these days, and I think anything we can do positive, instead of negative, will influence and help our young people,” Harrell said.
The FFRF sent a letter to the Cameron R-1 School District on Oct. 28, urging the superintendent to take immediate action to stop all school-sponsored prayers.
Superintendent Dr. Matt Robinson sent the following statement to FOX4, addressing the district’s response to the letter:
"The District will be performing an investigation into the allegations and concerns raised by the FFRF, pursuant to District’s non-discrimination policy and policy regarding religious expression, to determine whether District policy has been violated. The District will also take immediate interim measures to protect students from further possible violations of District policy. No local complaints were brought to the attention of administration of the school district."
“I think people are going to support and stand by the values of this community,” Harrell said.
“We would like the coach to follow the law. That’s our only concern here,” Line said. “We have no desire to see him lose his job or anything like that.”
Wallace was named the head football coach at Cameron High in March 2019. The Dragons play in a district semifinal game against the Savannah Savages on Friday night.
The FFRF has 30,000 members across the country, including 400 members in Missouri.