Photo of Elementary School Coach Praying With Players Causes Controversy

One group says the prayer session was a "constitutional violation."

ByABC News
December 11, 2015, 12:43 PM

— -- An Indiana basketball coach was asked to stop participating in a team prayer circle after school officials received an e-mail condemning the practice.

Scott Spahr was photographed standing at center court holding hands and bowing his head in prayer alongside the Morristown Elementary School girls' basketball team and the opposing team from Waldron Elementary on Dec. 1. Principals from both schools received an e-mail from the American Humanist Association last Friday asserting Spahr's presence was "a constitutional violation." Spahr agreed to stop participating in the prayer circle after being notified of the complaints.

The AHA strives to "bring about a progressive society where being good without God is an accepted and respected way to live life," according to its website.

ABC News obtained a copy of the message written by AHA legal director David Niose, which says, "staff participation in prayers with students at school events is impermissible as it conveys an endorsement of religion and creates a coercive atmosphere where children may feel pressured to participate in religious activity."

Spahr told ABC News that he was "dumbfounded" by the AHA's reaction. He said his students invited him into the circle and that the AHA misinterpreted the incident.

"That's always been a player-led prayer circle," Spahr said.

Spahr, who has coached the Morristown Elementary Yellowjackets for six seasons, said the prayer circle was a tradition before he arrived. But the coach said he would prefer to move forward from the incident for the kid's sake.

"We're talking about 10 and 11 year-old-kids and they're confused about the whole issue," Spahr said.

The coach said his team invited Waldron to pray with them at the end of the game to see how big they could make the circle and to express their thanks that no one was injured in the game.

"We weren't trying to shut down the prayers," Niose told ABC News. "But it is interesting that these prayer circles are asserted so much in public schools. We do question if these prayer circles are always student-initiated. How often do students at a pickup game on the playground pray before a game?"

The student-led prayer circles will continue without him, according to Spahr.

"[I] have no clue what's in each of these players' hearts," Spahr said. "That circle time is for each of those players to reflect. It's not about one person or one religion. It's about the players themselves."