A.C.L.U. Objects to Football Players' 'Proselytizing' in
Seattle--Members of the Seattle Seahawks professional football team who visit public high schools here to play basketball and volleyball with students, but then hold voluntary assemblies to extol the virtues of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, have raised the hackles of the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) of Washington.
The aclu last week urged all area public schools to stop booking the assemblies, which are "billed to students as sports and conditioning programs, but in fact are outspoken exhortations to the students to adopt certain religious beliefs."
The aclu acted after it learned that at least seven veteran Seahawks had been involved in such assemblies at six suburban high schools. During one assembly, attended by some 600 students, Sherman Smith, a running back, told the audience, "We're here today not to promote basketball and not to promote volleyball ... but to promote God's word." But Mr. Smith said he is not about to apologize for giving "my Christian testimony" last week to students at Lake Stevens High School during school hours, even though he admits that some Jewish and Mormon students were offended.
"Some people get offended and write, 'I'm a Jew and damn proud of it,' or 'I'm a Mormon."' Mr. Smith said. "Kids who are from different religious backgrounds get offended."
Nor is Mr. Smith sorry about recent appearances at five other western Washington public schools where, he said, "I just went in there to talk about my faith." In fact, Mr. Smith said he has talked to thousands of Washington public-school students since becoming a Christian five years ago.
But the aclu hopes to ensure that Mr. Smith and the other Seahawks do not continue to "proselytize in government-sponsored facilities like a public school" in Washington.
While not threatening suit, aclu officials said last week they were not ruling out the possibility of taking action against public schools that continue to schedule the voluntary assemblies.
Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the Washington aclu, noted that, aside from the separation of church and state provided for in the U.S. Constitution, Washington's constitution decrees that "all schools maintained or supported ... by the public funds shall be forever free from sectarian control or influence."
Despite the furor here, legal action may not be necessary. The aclu succeeded in obtaining the cancellation of two similar assemblies planned at area high schools.
School officials at a Tacoma high school called off an appearance because they were unable to obtain assurances from the players that they would not discuss religion.
Marvin Shain, the school's principal, said he cancelled the assembly because "there was not the assurance there would be a complete separation of church and state."
So far, neither the Christian Seahawks nor the groups involved in booking the assemblies--Sports World Ministries and Athletes in Action--have approached any administrators in Seattle, the state's largest school system.
According to Mr. Smith, both organizations are Christian groups for professional athletes. Spokesmen for Sports World Ministries, based in Atlanta and San Diego, and Athletes in Action could not be reached for comment.
Keith Morgan, principal at the Lake Stevens school, said the athletes played volleyball with students for about 15 minutes before Mr. Smith got up to speak.
"He talked about how his life had been all mixed up at one time and he turned it around," Mr. Morgan said. "He said he felt Christianity was the turning point and that God was responsible."
"When he finished this, they set up scores and timers and played basketball for 15 minutes. Then Steve Largent [a wide receiver for the Seahawks] spoke and he, too, said God played an important part in this life," the principal added.
In addition to Mr. Smith and Mr. Largent, linebackers Brian Flones, Michael Jackson, and Keith Butler and defensive back Kerry Justin were involved in the Lake Stevens appearance. Former Seahawks Ron Coder and Rolley Woolsey also attended. John Thompson, the Seahawks' general manager, said the team is not involved in the dispute. "The issue is clearly one between the aclu and the schools," Mr. Thompson said. "These players are acting as individuals. In fact, we're very proud of our players who donate a lot of their time to community causes."
Vol. 01, Issue 33