Roanoke and Roanoke County public schools have put a stop to an outside group’s Christian ministry to football players following at least two complaints.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent letters to both school districts last month that called attention to the Roanoke Area Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ “watermelon ministry.” The foundation asked the districts to halt the practice of allowing religious leaders to meet with students during school activities.
Officials from both districts said that until the letter arrived, they were unaware of the watermelon ministries, where staff from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes brought watermelon slices to share with football players during summer practices. During the visits, fellowship staff talked with students about their faith, according to Facebook posts from the Christian group, some of which date to 2008.
Both districts said they have ended the practice and talked with coaches and staff about what is allowed.
“Roanoke County Schools believes in the separation of church and state,” Superintendent Greg Killough said. “We want to maintain and ensure that that practice is being followed.”
“When this information came to our attention, we responded immediately,” according to a Roanoke City Public Schools statement issued by spokesman Justin McLeod. “We met with the appropriate people and made it very clear that separation of church and state is the law of the land. We feel the matter is under control and we will monitor this very closely.”
Patrick Elliott, an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said his group heard from two different people with concerns about the program. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, is dedicated to “protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church,” according to its website.
In Elliott’s letters to Killough and Roanoke Superintendent Rita Bishop, he included Facebook posts from the fellowship and from others which showed its leaders meeting with football teams at Cave Spring, Glenvar, Hidden Valley, Patrick Henry and William Fleming high schools.
Elliott’s letter also quoted two articles published by The Roanoke Star that talked about the fellowship’s visits to local schools. One from August described a fellowship official’s visit to Patrick Henry. Another, from August 2014, described a visit to William Fleming.
“We point out that all the talents they have come from God,” Roanoke Valley fellowship director Al Soltis told the Star in 2014. “We need to glorify Him in all we do, both on and off the field.”
Soltis referred questions to the group’s national office, which offered a statement through its media office: “Every student athlete has the right and the freedom to participate in activities according to their individual religious convictions. There are no repercussions for students who decline to participate in FCA activities.”
Elliott said his group was concerned that students potentially were forced to listen to a Christian message in a setting that is supposed to be neutral.
“They’re being plied, almost like a literal carrot-and-stick approach, to receive this religious message,” Elliott said. “It really does hit at the heart of the First Amendment.”
Elliott said he was happy to hear the schools stopped the practice, and hoped they would continue to monitor the situation.
“We really want the school districts to educate their employees about what kind of conduct is allowed,” he said.