Students pray after atheist group threatens to sue

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HALL COUNTY, Ga. - A group of students and adults gathered in Chestatee High School’s football stadium to pray in support of the school’s football coaching staff. An atheist group says it will sue if the team’s staff does not stop leading prayers with their players.

Thursday's prayer service was the second time in recent days that students gathered in prayer to support their football coach.

David Niose of the American Humanist Association, based in Washington, DC, said the group took action after receiving complaints and photos of the Chestatee High School team holding hands on the field. Two other photos showed a Bible quote at the bottom of a workout sheet and on a banner held up by cheerleaders.

The organization said the coach is violating the constitutional church-state separation in public school, and advocating a specific religion.

Niose said the group is objecting to an unconstitutional infusion of religion into the high school football program. They want the prayer and the biblical verses found in workout sheets and pre-game banners removed.

The AHA said the school has a couple of weeks to change its religious practices in the football program, or risk a lawsuit.

“The program is just infused with religion,” said Niose.

Hall County School spokesman Gordon Higgins believes the photos submitted to the AHA are from a previous year.

"These images were obviously taken in prior years since we haven't even started the 2014 football season yet," said Higgins. 

Students told Channel 2’s Tom Regan that they support the football coaching staff. They said the prayer isn’t mandated or part of any curriculum.

“I think it’s ridiculous. Every school does it. Everyone prays before football games and after football games. And it’s not the coach's decision. It’s the students’ decision,” said student Megan Ellis.

"We've been in the program for years. My son played football. It's never been forced upon him. It is completely open invitation. If you want to pray, pray. If you don't you don't have to," parent Beth Swenson said.

Student Laura Arrangon said the coaching staff isn’t in the wrong.

“They don’t force us to do anything. It’s our beliefs and what we believe in,” Arrangton said.  

“We don’t try to hurt anybody’s feelings or hurt anyone’s way of believing," student Marlene Olvera said.

A Hall County school official says the school is studying the legal merits of the complaint.