Monday, September 03, 2007

hail mary...

by Owen Holmes, Folio Weekly (Reprinted here with permission from the author)


Nothing like watching "The Passion of The Christ" to get pumped up for the big game. According to concerned parents of players on the football team at St. Johns County's Bartram Trail High School, head coach Darrell Sutherland has showed scenes of the Mel Gibson crucifixion flick during a "team meal".

That hasn't been Sutherland's only form of proselytizing. According to parents and players, Sutherland reads Bible passages aloud during practice. He prays before meals, instructing players to bow their heads. In the locker room, he lectures them on working as hard on the field as God wants them to. He fully expects players to attend church "as a team" and be active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and explicitly criticizes those who don't. He even voices his disappointment in players and families who hit the local Beef O'Bradys for Monday night football and chicken wings, because the restaurant serves alcohol.

More egregiously, parents say, Sutherland promotes only players who exhibit his own religious convictions while holding back those who don't.

If you want to be looked on favorably and be considered as a star player, there's and unwritten level of expectations that the coach expects you to participate in," says one parent, referring to involvement in FCA and church attendance. (The mom asked not to be identified to protect her son from [divine?] retribution.) "If there's an athlete that has the potential to go to the next level, and that player doesn't meet the expectations of the coach, he won't be recommended as much to colleges and universities." The mom says the team members have even been encouraged by a visiting scout to become involved in FCA in order to have the coach's blessing.

"There are all different religions on the team, and he preaches just his," says one player. "We have a lot of kids who are Jewish."

The parents of "easily a dozen" players are worried about Sutherland's religious demands, according to one parent. But with a new football season underway, those concerned declined to be identified for fear their kids would be further penalized."

Several parents share my position--our rights are being violated. But when one attempts to speak up on the issue, the child receives retaliation or [Sutherland] makes a point of bringing it up to the students," explains one parent. "We know it's wrong, but everyone's afraid to stand up."

Sutherland, a 36-year-old who's been at Bartram Trail since 2000, did not return phone messages over the course of two days. The coach's personnel file includes glowing reviews from supervisors, as well as letters of recommendation from colleagues testifying that he's of "extremely sound and logical judgment," "will never hold a grudge" and "a man of strong Christian faith who can let his actions be his witness."

The file includes no formal complaints regarding Sutherland's religious practices; parents contend that Bartram Trail principal Brennan Asplen and their area's St. Johns County School Board member, Beverly Slough, have ignored their complaints. (Biographies for Asplen and Slough on Bartram Trail's website and the School Board's website, respectively, note their involvement in church; Slough is married to the pastor of Switzerland Community Church.) When contacted by Folio Weekly, Asplen's secretary said he's out of the state for the week; Slough did not return two calls to her cell phone.

According to the St. Johns County School Board Rules Manual, the district forbids discrimination or harassment--including "verbal conduct" that "shows hostility or aversion"--on the basis of religion. The code also specifically bars retaliation--"any form of intimidation, reprisal or harassment"--against those who complain about such infractions. Penalties include termination, the manual states. Superintendent Joseph Joyner did not return calls, although two secretaries promised he would.

The silence on the issue at all levels only compounds the frustration with Sutherland's proselytizing, a ring of complicity that's galvanized "the Julington Creek Bible Belt", according to one concerned parent, who emphasizes that there are players of disparate religious faiths on the team. (And that parents are required to sign releases in order for their kids to see PG-13 movies in school; "The Passion of The Christ" is rated R.)

"I'm appalled," the parent says. "The athletic department of Bartram Trail High School is out of control. It is a public school that is performing as a private Christian school."