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Who's On First? Not God

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At Burgettstown High School, the team mascot is the Blue Devils. But for the past two years, the baseball team has been playing with God on its side. In the process, the Washington County district violated its own policies and, arguably, the Constitution.

At the start of this year's season, varsity baseball coach Jamie Howell circulated a statement of team rules for players and their parents to sign. The rules mostly concern routine matters like attendance, but they begin with the assertion that "The basic philosophy of how our team operates can be described with the following priorities in [the] following order: 1) God (Your faith). This does not mean we must have the same faith. However, it means that your faith is paramount in guiding your daily life and activities." The other priorities were, in descending order, family, school and team. "The above-mentioned items are basic requirements to be a member in good standing of your school's baseball team," players were told. "If you are unable to meet these minimum standards, maybe baseball is not an activity you should pursue."

 

Such language isn't new: In 2005, Howell gave players a "player covenant" to sign in which they pledged "My priorities are the following: 1) God (this is a personal decision as to whatever faith I feel compelled to practice)." Later, the document pledged, "I will not display conduct unbecoming of my God, my family, my school and this team."

 

"I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it's unconstitutional," says Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU. "OK, it's not a big limb. It's the trunk of a very large tree."

The team rules, he says, "violates all three prongs" of a test courts have repeatedly used to judge whether a policy violates a church/state separation. Those tests determine whether a policy "shows an intention to promote religion"; whether "the average person would perceive it as a governmental endorsement in a belief in God"; and whether "it entangles the school board in religious views."

 

The state's Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators also requires that teachers "respect the civil rights of all and not discriminate on the basis" of religion, culture and other factors.

 

It's unclear whether refusing to sign the agreement barred a student from playing: Howell could not be reached for comment, and athletic director Jon Vallina did not return a call.

But "even if you circulate this and don't require parents to sign it, it would be unconstitutional," Walczak says. Nor does it matter that the policy expressly avoids touting any one faith in particular. "It's been clear law for 50 years: Government can no more prefer religion in general than it can a particular faith."

 

Contacted by City Paper, district superintendent Deborah M. Jackson acknowledges that the contract "is not kosher." She says that neither she nor the school's athletic director saw the document before it was sent out. But "about two weeks ago, a parent brought this document to the athletic director's attention, and he met with the coach and reviewed this." Asked whether the district had a policy prohibiting such religious language, Jackson said, "I would have to look that up."

 

Apparently, she did: In a letter dated March 30  ... the same day Jackson spoke to City Paper  ... Jackson sent a letter to players and parents advising them that the document referred to "a spiritual ideal that is contrary to school district regulations and the idea of separation of church and state. ... [A]n employee of a public school (the state) cannot impose his/her religious beliefs ... on students of a public school. Burgettstown policy #103  ... Nondiscrimination in School-Classroom Activities pertains to this specific situation."

 

Jackson wrote that she "directed Coach Howell to rewrite the ... document." Enclosed with the letter was a new statement of rules, in which all references to God were deleted.

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