LAND O’ LAKES — When Pasco school Superintendent Kurt Browning learned last week that some high school football coaches were leading their teams in prayer, he issued a memo to remind principals about the laws on prayer in public schools.
In essence, students are free to initiate and lead prayers during non-instructional time. But school employees can’t lead those prayers when they are acting in their official capacities.
“We want students to be able to exercise their faith at appropriate times and places, but we don’t want anyone to feel coerced into participating or to feel ostracized if they choose not to participate,” Browning wrote.
Although Browning’s memo just reiterated what was already school board policy and existing law, the memo caused enough of a negative backlash on social media that he felt compelled to respond this week on his Facebook page, noting that he is a Christian and wants students and staff to exercise their faith.
Browning said Thursday that, while he has his own faith convictions, when he became superintendent he took an oath to uphold the constitutions and laws of the United States and Florida.
“It’s been one of the toughest issues I’ve had to deal with since becoming superintendent,” Browning said.
He issued the memo “primarily for protection of the coaches and protection of the district,” Browning said.
“I don’t want someone filing a complaint that their son or daughter feels coerced into having to participate in a Christian prayer,” he said. “There are people out there who say they (students) can just step away, and that’s easy to say. But it’s another thing when you have kids who don’t want to feel ostracized or not feel they are part of the team.”
Browning said many people tell him they appreciate his stand, though Browning said he doesn’t view it as a stand so much as just trying to strike the balance that has already been determined by courts.
He said he also runs into people, passionate about their Christian faith, who question whether he is serving God or serving man.
“I believe I’m doing what I’ve been called to do, both as a man of faith and as a superintendent,” Browning said.
Browning’s memo, dated Sept. 26 and titled “Religious observance,” came with attached documents that included school board policy and references to laws and court rulings.
One of the first responses to the memo came from Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who sent an email to Browning Sept. 29 and said he would work on a bill to change the law if need be.
“If a football coach wants to lead a prayer with his players on the field after a game they should be able to do that,” Weatherford wrote.
Days later, Weatherford commented on Browning’s Facebook post, praising Browning as a “man of faith and a great friend.” Weatherford stood by his view that a change in the law might be needed, though.
“Not allowing coaches to pray with their players during extracurricular activities is un-American,” Weatherford wrote. “Our courts and our laws should recognize that!”
Not everyone agreed with Weatherford’s take.
Kenny Blankenship, a vice president of United School Employees of Pasco, praised Browning for upholding the law.
“To say that this is ‘un-American’ only stirs up animosity and fans the flames of discontent between those of differing opinions, regardless of which faith belief you hold,” Blankenship wrote on Browning’s Facebook page. “It is very American!”
Coach Tom McHugh at Pasco High School in Dade City said Thursday that he has no plans to change things with his team come this week’s game with South Sumter High, but he doesn’t lead team prayers anyway. Players do, he said.
“We always have about five or six kids whose fathers are pastors or are deeply involved in the church,” said McHugh, the school’s football coach for seven years. “I never have to worry about finding someone to do that. They just step up and do it.”