UPDATE: Youth pastor speaks out about the prayer on the football - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

UPDATE: Youth pastor speaks out about the prayer on the football field complaint

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

UPDATE: Channel 3 spoke with the Pastor who led a prayer at a local high school football game, prompting a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation this week. 
 
Youth Pastor, Eric Dill says he never meant to make anyone uncomfortable last September and he didn't drop to his knee for the recognition or the 25,000 Facebook views that followed. He told us that he only wanted to help the injured player. 

"A neck injury is the scariest part of football," said Pastor Eric Dill, Bayside Baptist Church. 

The former Central High quarterback, says the injured player had been down on the ground for nearly 30 minutes after a hard hit during the game. The student was unable to move his legs awaiting the ambulance. 

 " It was almost dead silence about the only thing I could hear on the field was like sniffling and just players getting emotional," said Dill. 

 A player asked him to say a prayer and he didn't hesitate. Other players and staff joined in.

"If I believe in a God who answers prayers, how bad to I have to hate the kid who's injured or the player who asked or the players who are hurting not to pray," said Dill. 

He says it was never his intention to upset anyone. 

"I'm going to be respectful and I'm going to be considerate.  I'm not going to force my myself or my faith, God doesn't force himself on people," said Dill. " But if a student asks me Eric pray for this,  especially in something like this, I'm going to pray." 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a formal complaint with Hamilton County Schools saying the coach participation in the prayer violated the constitutional rights of students. 

The complaint was filed anonymously by a man who attended the game. 

He wrote in a statement, 

"I did so because federal course have repeatedly ruled for decades that coaches cannot participate in prayer in school, and even that student led prayer at football games is unconstitutional. I simply want faculty and staff at Hamilton County Schools to follow the law, which they currently are not doing. Giving a minister access to students for religious purposes during a football game is indefensible," said complainant. 

No other complaints have been filed. The school system responded to the complaint Monday saying additional training will take place. Central's Principal says coaches did not realize that bowing their heads in silence was an endorsement. He says they were simply doing it out of respect for the injured student.

"Those coaches would  never do anything to jeopardize their influence or care over those students. They would never do anything intentional to do that. They're not perfect and I'm not a perfect person but they care for and love those players as much as they can," said Dill. 

Dill says he respects beliefs that are different from his own and hopes others will too. 

"The person who made the complaint and the Freedom from Religion Foundation are not the enemy and so we need to make sure that our words and the thoughts that we post and the things we say in this conversation verbalize that ...they are not the enemy," said Dill. 

A spokesperson for the Freedom From Religion Foundation says the group is happy school officials investigated the situation, but she says they are still concerned that school officials have yet to acknowledge that the coaches participation in the prayer was unconstitutional. The group plans to send a follow up letter to the school system later this week.


PREVIOUS STORY: Controversy over prayer during a football game last year is suddenly brewing. A video showing football players from two Hamilton County Schools bowing their heads together in prayer has been viewed more than 25,000 times.

Now the school system is being challenged by a group that claims the prayer broke the law. The "Freedom from Religion Foundation" is calling for more training. 
    
The complaint accuses East Ridge and Central High Schools of endorsing a coach led-prayer after a player was injured. Attorney Scott Bennett calls this a misunderstanding saying the prayer was not an endorsement of religion, but a gesture of compassion.

The video shows students and faculty down on their knees, after a student was seriously injured during a football game September 9th. 

Central High's Principal tells Channel 3 everyone in the stadium was shaken up as the student was lying in the middle of the field for about 30 minutes, unable to move his legs. Officials feared the player had a possible neck or life- threatening spine injury at the time, he was carried away in an ambulance. That's when a man on the sidelines began to pray. He said he was asked to by a player and other players and staff joined in. 

The complaint, filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, claims the man leading the prayer was a school employee and for that reason the prayer violated the constitutional rights of students.  

The man who contacted the organization says he was at the game during this incident but did not record the video.  He didn't want to be identified, but released this statement to Channel 3:

"I did so because federal course have repeatedly ruled for decades that coaches cannot participate in prayer in school, and even that student led prayer at football games is unconstitutional. I simply want faculty and staff at Hamilton County Schools to follow the law, which they currently are not doing. Giving a minister access to students for religious purposes during a football game is indefensible," said complainant. 

School officials say the man seen leading the prayer in a Central High shirt is only an alumni who now works as a local youth pastor. Officials say the pastor just happens to be a former quarterback for Central High School. 

Principal Finley King tells us the prayer was not organized by school officials and students were not forced to participate. 

Still, the man who filed the complaint says it's unacceptable. 

"The same Christians who are upset that I complained would be the first to riot if a Muslim came to the school to pray. I stand by my decision to complain and hope that appropriate actions are taken to ensure that these kinds of constitutional violations do not occur again in the future," said complainant. 

No other complaints have been filed. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is asking for coaches and staff to receive training. Central's Principal says coaches did not realize that bowing their heads in silence was an endorsement. 
He says they were simply doing it out of respect for the injured student.

School officials say they understand that they are not to endorse any particular religious practice including student led prayer and they do not believe that any boundaries were violated in this situation, but additional training will be provided to school employees.
 
This isn't the first time the topic has been brought up in our area. Multiple schools in the Tennessee Valley, including Marion County and Ridgeland High Schools have been asked by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to stop public prayer at football games. 

Original Complaint: 


PREVIOUS STORY: Hamilton County Schools received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation in regards to an incident they say happened in September of 2016. 

The letter, which is posted below, states that per the complainant, during a football game, players and coaches from both East Ridge and Central High Schools gathered on the field to pray for a player that was injured. 

The letter says the prayer was led by an adult wearing a school shirt.  

A spokeswoman with Hamilton County Schools sent out a statement on Saturday:

We have just received the letter in question. Since this is the weekend, we have not had an opportunity to speak with the concerned parties. We are investigating the allegations. Hamilton County Department of Education does a great job of training on religious issues, and if necessary will implement further training.

Count on Channel 3 to follow this developing story. 

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