DUNMORE, LACKAWANNA COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) – A Lackawanna County football program is being forced to change one of its pre-game traditions after more than three decades.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation which is based in Wisconsin recently complained to the Dunmore School District because long-time head coach Jack Henzes was leading his team in a pre-game prayer.
The group sent the district a two-page letter back in June.
The district’s new superintendent recently discovered it and realized what was being done was illegal in a public school and took action.
That certainly hasn’t stopped the backlash in Bucktown.
When you think of tight-knit football programs, the Dunmore Bucks often come to mind.
For year, coach Jack Henzes has openly led his team in prayer before games.
Sam Malia was on the 1985 team that won the Eastern Conference Championship.
“It just meant we all came together as one unit, as one family,” Malia said.
After being contacted by a “concerned resident,” the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the district a complaint letter.
Part of it read, “when a public school employee acting in an official capacity organizes, leads or participates in team prayer, he effectively endorses religion on the district’s behalf.”
“It’s been a tradition for years. They pray for the safety of our team, the other team we’re playing and that it’ll be a good game,” Jessica Fortese Symons said.
Jessica Fortese Symons understands why the prayer is illegal but that doesn’t make the changes any easier.
“To have something like that just ripped out from these kids at the end of our season, the week we’re heading into playoffs, it just really rocked their worlds,” Fortese Symons said.
In a statement, Dunmore’s superintendent John Marichak told Eyewitness News: “The law is cut and dry. We talked to all our coaches. We wanted them to understand what types of behaviors are acceptable and which ones are infringing on the law.”
Former players are irate over the whole situation.
“I don’t think they (Freedom from Religion Foundation) have any right to butt their nose into our business. We’ve been doing this for 30-40 years and all of a sudden it’s an issue?” Malia questioned.
Dunmore students say they’re planning to keep the prayer tradition going at Friday’s nights game even if they have to do it on their own without their coaches.
Calls and messages left for Coach Jack Henzes Thursday were not immediately returned.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation tells Eyewitness News it is pleased that Dunmore took its complaint seriously and educated its coaching staff on the legal boundaries in this case.