Central coach, school board stand by prayer after Freedom from Religion group files complaint

When Cortney Braswell bowed his head in September, the Central High School football coach said he was thinking about one thing: the safety of his player.

During a game against East Ridge High School, one of Braswell's players was injured and unable to feel his legs. He was taken away in an ambulance.

"It was a fragile moment for us all," Braswell said.

As a local youth pastor began to lead a prayer, joined by players from both teams, Braswell bowed his head. A Facebook video of the prayer has been viewed more than 25,000 times.

This incident prompted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that works to protect the separation of church and state, to file a complaint last week against Hamilton County Schools, as the law prohibits school employees from leading or participating in prayer with students.

Braswell said his bowed head wasn't intended to be an endorsement of any religion.

"I am a believer. I have a lot of faith," Braswell said. "But I would never push my faith on anyone else."

Scott Bennett, the Hamilton County school board's attorney, responded to the complaint, explaining the coaches, actions and clarifying they did not lead the prayer.

"Rather than being an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, this was human compassion at its finest," Bennett wrote, adding that the player has since made a full recovery.

Officials with Hamilton County Schools understand they may not endorse any particular religious practice and do not think any constitutional boundaries were violated in this situation, Bennett continued. The district plans to provide additional training to its employees on the application of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in the public schools, he added.

Rebecca Markert, the attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent the complaint to Hamilton County Schools, and said its laudable for students and coaches to express concern over an injured player, but coaches can't use it as an opportunity to engage students in a religious exercise.

"Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students' prayers," she writes.

After reading Hamilton County Schools' response, Markert told the Times Free Press she is glad the district plans to ensure all school employees, including coaches, are properly educated on the First Amendment. Markert said she plans to ask Bennett to be sure the training is clear that "even participation in the religious exercises of students is illegal and inappropriate."

Looking ahead, Braswell said he will be more aware and "really cautious and careful not to endorse any religion." He said he understands laws are in place and need to be respected, and that he must set his personal beliefs aside.

"My job is to help young men to grow and mature and make right decisions so they can grow to be effective contributors to society," he said.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at [email protected] or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.