Michigan football team not allowed on-field prayer for coach's sick daughter

A Michigan high school football team has been barred from undertaking any prayer-based activities at the school, after a Michigan civil rights group discovered that they had been promoting prayer circles in support of their coach’s ailing daughter.

The Lake City High School football team had been holding prayer circles, called “family circles,” both pre-scrimmage and at other times.

9&10 News reported that both students and parents attended, and one was held at midnight at the football field. These students and parents are showing their support for Harper Smith, the four-year-old daughter of coach Kyle Smith. Harper has been hospitalized for several months while fighting an intestinal illness.

The school posted videos of the prayer circle on their Facebook page, and that’s when the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists got involved. MACRA sent an informal cease-and-desist letter to the school, explaining that they were promoting a prayer service at a public school, and asking that they take the videos down. Since Lake City High School is a public school and the prayer circle was held on school grounds, that violates the first amendment, which guarantees that the government (which includes the public school system) can’t endorse any religion or impose religious beliefs on its citizens.

Community member Lacie Henjal told 9&10 News that she supported the team’s decision to hold a prayer circle, and the school’s decision to publicize it on their website.

“Yes a pastor offered prayer, but it was never advertised as a prayer event it was a family circle coming to support Kyle, Harper, Linda and Hudson. It bothers me that someone that’s not from our community is trying to silence us.”

Henjal emphasized that no one was forced to participate. But the group’s co-founder, Mitch Kahle, said that it’s not about anyone being forced or not forced to participate. 

“The bottom line is it’s the property of the school and the school has a responsibility to treat it just like any other school property, and that means it has to remain free of religion.”

The school initially refused to remove the videos, but finally took them down on Thursday. Leaving them up could have resulted in lawsuit from MACRA, or the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has sent several letters to the school. Representatives from both MACRA and the Freedom From Religion Foundation applauded the school’s efforts to help Harper — as long as religion isn’t involved.

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 07: Christian ministers, clergy and lay leaders pray during an Easter Prayer Breakfast in the East Room of the White House April 7, 2015 in Washington, DC. According to the White House, President Barack Obama hosted the event to bring Christian religious leaders together at the White House to 'pray and reflect on Holy Week and Easter.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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While there haven’t been any other prayer circles, community member Jennifer Smith told 9&10 News that the attention from MACRA’s cease-and-desist has helped the fundraising effort tremendously.

“All they’ve really done for us is increase the funding, the fundraising, and there are schools down in Jennison that are now wearing #harperstrong on their football helmets.”

The school has continued to fundraise for little Harper, and held a spaghetti dinner recently to raise more money for her care and for the family.

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Liz Roscher is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at lizroscher@yahoo.com or follow her on Twitter at @lizroscher.

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