HAINES CITY — In recent weeks, Matt Norman, 46, announced on his Facebook page a new position he will be holding: “I’m super excited to be serving HCHS as the football team’s chaplain.”

Nearly 50 people congratulated him, with many calling it “awesome,” and telling Norman the team would be blessed by him.

“You are following a great chaplain…seriously that is great to hear that the team continues to have an another awesome man of God leading them,” wrote Sue Warren Whiteman, whose husband, Derrick Whiteman, had been serving in that capacity. 

“(Thank) you so much. It’s an honor to follow Derrick in this role,” Norman wrote back.  

Derrick Whiteman also congratulated Norman, saying, “I can’t think of anyone better!” 

The problem is there is no official Haines City High School football team chaplain, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that adult-led prayer in public schools and at public school events is unconstitutional.

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‘Students may engage in prayer’

Polk County Public Schools spokesman Jason Geary told The Ledger that Norman is not a school district employee, although his wife is the HCHS financial secretary. 

“There is no position of team chaplain, and there is no intention of adding this position,” Geary said. “I also wanted to let you know that Haines City High’s principal was not aware that Matt Norman would be posting this message on his personal social media.”

Geary explained that Norman has expressed an interest in volunteering with the school’s football team and, if he does become a volunteer, he will be instructed to not engage in prayer with students.

“Students may engage in prayer, so long as it is student-initiated, and students must not be forced to participate,” Geary said. “In addition, employees or representatives of the school district must not lead or participate in prayer.”

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Geary said Haines City High’s principal and coach “are aware of this and will make sure Mr. Norman understands should he become a volunteer.

Football Coach Pat Herrington said he was unaware that Norman had publicly announced becoming team chaplain.

“I don’t know anything about that. I know you can’t do that stuff anymore like that,” Herrington said. “I don’t know if that’s something he put out on his own.”

Herrington said he knows that adults cannot lead prayers in school. 

“If the students do it, I have no problem – I don’t get involved with any of that type of stuff,” Herrington said. “I know there’s a big no-no with that type of stuff.” 

Religious speech and the Supreme Court

The battle over religion in schools began in the 1960s during the administration of President John F. Kennedy.  

In a 6-1 opinion in 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school prayer was unconstitutional. The case began in New York state, when the Board of Regents authorized a short, voluntary prayer for children to recite at the start of the school day.  

Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, said the Board of Regents decision to use its school system to facilitate recitation of the official prayer breached the constitutional wall of separation between church and state. Known as the Establishment Clause, it prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

“The Court ruled that the constitutional prohibition of laws establishing religion meant that government had no business drafting formal prayers for any segment of its population to repeat in a government-sponsored religious program,” according to the website Oyez.org, a free law project from Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, Justia, and Chicago-Kent College of Law. 

Justice Potter Stewart dissented, “arguing that no ‘official religion’ was established by permitting those who want to say a prayer to say it,’ Oyez noted.

The more famous 1963 case pitted atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair against the School Board of Baltimore, Maryland, when she filed a lawsuit to prohibit Bible reading in public schools, calling it an unconstitutional activity. Edward Lewis Schemp also sued the School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania, for requiring students to read from the Bible at the opening of each school day.

The court heard both cases and ruled in an 8-1 decision that no public school can sponsor Bible readings and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer.

In 1980, the court also ruled that the Lord’s Prayer could not be displayed in schools.

But several U.S. Supreme Court decisions uphold students’ rights to free speech, including private prayers.

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which dealt with students protesting the Vietnam War, the court ruled 7-2 in 1969 that students “did not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they stepped onto school property,” Oyez.org said.

In Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette, the court ruled 7-2 in 1995 that a cross could be erected by the Ku Klux Klan on Capitol Square, the state-house plaza in Columbus, Ohio. The group had attempted to do so during the 1993 Christmas season.  

“The display was private religious speech that ‘is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression,’” Oyez.org stated. “Because Capitol Square is designated as a traditional public forum, any group may express their views there.” 

In Widmar v. Vincent, the court ruled 8-1 in 1981 that a public university — the University of Missouri-Kansas City — must provide meeting space for voluntary religious groups, just as it had for all other clubs.

In the 2001 case the Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the justices ruled 6-3 that the school’s refusal to allow the club after-hours use of its facilities violates the club’s free speech rights and that no concern about separation of church and state justifies that violation.

“When Milford denied the Good News Club access to the school’s limited public forum on the ground that the Club was religious in nature, it discriminated against the Club because of its religious viewpoint in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2000 in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that there could be no official prayer said before the start of athletic events, not even by a student, and not on a loudspeaker, which subjected the entire audience to religious speech.

“The Court concluded that the football game prayers were public speech authorized by a government policy and taking place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events and that the (School) District’s policy involved both perceived and actual government endorsement of the delivery of prayer at important school events,” according to Oyez.org. “Such speech is not properly characterized as ‘private,’ wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.

But, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, “noted the ‘’disturbing’ tone of the Court’s opinion that ‘bristle(d) with hostility to all things religious in public life,’ Oyez wrote.

‘I prayed with the kids before the games’ 

Matt Norman did not respond to two requests from The Ledger for an interview and blocked a reporter from his Facebook page.

Derrick Whiteman, 48, said he served for about five years as team chaplain under several coaches. He has since left Polk County, taking a job as a full-time family and children pastor at a church in Miami.

“I prayed with the kids before the games, and that’s the bulk of it honestly,” Whiteman said Wednesday, adding that most of what he did with the team was football related or life-coaching to the kids when they were injured or disappointed.

“There was a time I would do the prayer if they had a team dinner,” Whiteman said, adding that he never used a microphone. “It was not something that was mandatory or forced on the kids, at least to my knowledge anyway. I had several of the kids who were a part of my church, and a lot of that was just done with them. Everything that we did was done through Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Part of FCA, the students have a lot of control over it. Most of the time, another kid would lead something. I did prayer once in a while. I was like the encourager and keep the kids on a positive focus.”

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It was not clear whether he was named chaplain by student leaders of FCA or it was a title he gave to himself. He declined to answer any follow-up questions following a Wednesday morning interview.   

The FCA Florida website reads that its mission is “To see the world transformed by Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes.”

There is a student-led Bible study and prayer on the West Central Florida FCA website. The group held a golf tournament fundraiser in February and recently held a “Coaches Time Out” weekend retreat, “designed for a coach and their spouse to reconnect, relax and refresh. CTO is also designed to encourage and equip coaches and their spouses in their faith, family, and finances.”

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The West Central Florida FCA chapter did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Whiteman then said he was unaware school volunteers were forbidden by the U.S. Supreme Court from leading or participating in prayer. 

“Oh – I did not know that,” Whiteman said. “Wow – this is nothing forced on anybody and definitely not from a loudspeaker – I’ve never done that. And anything I did was not a mandatory thing.”

He said he saw kids not participate in the prayer, saying they put on headphones or just continued working out. He said he never saw anyone pressure players to participate or ostracize the ones who didn’t join with them.

‘Public schools may not promote religion’

On June 10, The Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a statement objecting to Norman’s comment and saying he “needs to be ejected from the field” because a team chaplain at a public high school is unconstitutional.

The foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 36,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 1,800 members in the Central Florida Freethought Community. The foundation works to protect the separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

“Public school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to allow someone to act as chaplain, because public schools may not promote religion,” FFRF staff attorney Chris Line said he wrote to the school district’s legal counsel. “It is therefore inappropriate and illegal for the Haines City High School football team to have a team chaplain, as this signals a blatant promotion of religion over nonreligion generally, and in this case, Christianity in particular.”

Line added that Polk County Public Schools cannot give an adult not affiliated with the school access to the children in its charge, and it can’t permit that access to a minister to advance his faith.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public schools may not be co-opted, either by staff or outside adults, to proselytize students,” Line said in a press release. “Federal courts have accordingly enforced injunctions against school districts who, by action or inaction, grant outside adults access to other peoples’ children to evangelize.” 

DeSantis signs new law

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is squarely on the side of religion in public schools. On Tuesday, DeSantis signed into law a bill that requires moments of silence in kindergarten through 12th-grade schools.

The moment of silence will begin during the first class of each day and will last anywhere from one to two minutes. Teachers can’t tell students what to think about during that time. DeSantis held the bill-signing ceremony at a Miami-Dade County Jewish Community Center in Miami-Dade County, saying he wants to protect religious freedom.

“We think it’s something that’s important to be able to provide each student the ability every day to be able to reflect and to be able to pray as they see fit,” DeSantis said. “The idea that you can just push God out of every institution and be successful – I’m sorry our founding fathers did not believe that.”

In 1985, though, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an Alabama case, declaring a moment of silence unconstitutional because it had a religious purpose.

“The Court held that Alabama’s passage of the prayer and meditation statute was not only a deviation from the state’s duty to maintain absolute neutrality toward religion, but was an affirmative endorsement of religion,” Oyez.org states. “As such, the statute clearly lacked any secular purpose as it sought to establish religion in public schools, thereby violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.” 

The law DeSantis signed this week will take effect July 1. 

Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at kmoore@theledger.com or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.