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Fans want answers after coach told he can’t pray with team

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By John Herndon

Hundreds of Anderson County citizens simply want to know, “Why?”

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Why was the decision handed down to modify the tradition of post-game and post-practice prayers by the Anderson County High School football team? Why were head coach Mark Peach and his staff told they could not participate in the prayers, even if they are not leading them.

“They had been doing this a long time,” said Monte McGregor. “I don’t know what caused the sudden change when there hadn’t been any problems. There have been no situations. No one’s feelings have been offended. Why all of a sudden do we see the abrupt change?”

Even before anyone could start formulating answers, hundreds of local citizens voiced their displeasure at the decision and descended onto the field at Warford Stadium where they joined the team in post-game prayer. The Bearcats defeated South Oldham, 35-20, a few moments earlier.

Some estimates were as many as 500 fans joined the Anderson team in prayer following the game. Before the contest, about 50 parents and fans gathered near the same goal post to pray as well.

“It makes me sad now that they are trying to stop (the organized prayers),” said McGregor’s wife, Brenda. “I want my son to be bathed in prayer before he goes out on the field for his own safety. I wasn’t surprised that this happened, but it really makes me sad.”

Anderson County football coach Mark Peach learned of the decision handed down by school Superintendent Sheila Mitchell last Wednesday. He informed the team of the decision after practice that day.

“I was just shocked,” the McGregors’ son, Nathan, a sophomore lineman, said after Friday’s game. “We had been praying after practice every day and after every game. I was shocked because that was a part of my life.”

However, Mitchell said her decision came after reviewing the Kentucky Department of Education’s legal advice to school districts in light of the threat of litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union over the distribution of Gideon Bibles.

The letter from the Board of Education Commissioner’s office, dated Aug. 26, is posted on the Anderson County Schools website. An excerpt from the letter says, “Teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible or other religious activities. They also are prohibited from encouraging or discouraging prayer, from ‘witnessing’ and from actively participating in such activities with students. Prohibitions also extend to local board of education meetings and other public forums such as sporting events. Such conduct is ‘attributable to the State’ and thus violates the Establishment Clause (of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.)”

Mitchell explained the reasoning behind her decision in an e-mail to The Anderson News. She wrote, “After receiving a request from Coach Peach to employ a volunteer chaplain to hold the pre- and post-game prayer, I sought counsel advice as I had just received the ACLU threat of litigation and the advice sent from the KDE Commissioner (Terry) Holliday’s office.

“Our attorney, Bob Chenoweth, advised that staff-organized prayer would violate state law as based on case law cited in the KDE’s recommendations. He also advised that student-led prayer organized by staff would also be considered a violation. However, as the recommendations provided by the state also remind us, First Amendment rights are always protected. Students can meet before and after school or school events to hold prayer. School staff will not interfere with a student’s First Amendment rights.”

Peach confirmed that he had asked Noah Chase, a youth pastor at Sand Spring Baptist Church, to be the team’s volunteer chaplain.

The coach, who returned to his alma mater in December of 2004, makes no secret of his faith. He admits to being in tears when he informed the team of the directive last Wednesday. More tears were welling in his eyes as he talked about the turn of events with The Anderson News.

Anderson’s normal post-game procedure had been to make some remarks about the just-completed game then call on his father, Al Peach, to lead the team in prayer. Friday, the coach finished his remarks then closed with a moment of silence, which had been considered a compromise solution.

After the coaching staff moved away, but all of the players stayed in the end zone in front of the fieldhouse, Al Peach, who is not a school employee, addressed the crowd before praying with the team. His voice broke several times while talking with the crowd, which included many local citizens who are not regulars at the games, but had come to pray with the team.

“This is the first time in four years as a player and 20 as a coach I have not been able to pray with my son. I have had the opportunity over 24 years to pray many times,” Al Peach said.

The explanation that having any member of the football coaching staff present when the team prayed still did not sit well with many residents last week.

“I could not believe they would not let Anderson County do prayers from the coaches,” said Debbie Puckett, whose son, Dusty, is a member of the football team.

“It is something that has always been done and I am in favor of it,” added Johnny Gehefer, a fan who was tailgating in the school parking lot.

Supporters of the coach far outnumbered any opposition at Friday’s game. Many felt the issue is about the coach’s freedom of expression and tolerance from those who disagree.

“I think anyone that wants to pray should have that privilege to pray,” said Stephanie Aldridge, who was working the concession stand. “No matter if they are a coach, a student or whatever. If the kids want to continue to pray, they should. The kids that don’t want to be involved in that have that right too. I think it is bad that they are asking our leadership not to pray with them.”

Monte McGregor added, “With the prayer, you don’t have to listen. You don’t have to be involved. It’s not like (Peach) is forcing this on anyone.”

Mitchell confirmed there had been no complaints to her during this school year nor had there ever been complaints about Al Peach leading the team in prayer. She did say, however, “I have received complaints regarding equal access in the past.”

As for the players themselves, the team continued to pray together, even without their coach. After Peach informed the Bearcats he could no longer pray with them on Wednesday, “we all got together and prayed,” Nathan McGregor said. “Thursday, (junior quarterback) Zachary Carmichael led us in a devotion.”

“Some of the leaders stepped up and took care of things,” added senior Sam Laytart, one of the team captains.
And there was a resolve to continue to pray together.

“Around school, there was a lot of frustration (about Peach being removed from the team prayers), but you can’t be frustrated,” Carmichael said. “You just have to go on and do what you have to do and you have to act like Christians. You can’t act like you are mad, you just have to stand up for what you believe in.

“This is bigger than football to me,” he said.

South Oldham coaches apparently prayed
While Anderson County football coach Mark Peach and his staff could not pray but could only observe a moment of silence with the Bearcat team Friday night, less than 100 yards away, the Bearcat opponents were sharing a moment in prayer.
The South Oldham team and head coach Jamie Reed apparently prayed together on the east end of the Warford Stadium field.
“I was talking with Coach Reed about the situation and he said he was sorry I was not able to pray with my team,” Peach said. “He said he was able to pray with his team.”
Reed said he would not make further comment on what his team did or didn’t do regarding prayer on the field last Friday night, and that he was more comfortable focusing on the game itself.
“I’d rather just talk about football,” Reed said.
Oldham Era sports editor Brad Stephens, who was at Friday’s game, confirmed that South Oldham has some kind of prayer ritual.
--John Herndon