Group: Middies coach ‘crosses the line’ with religious talk to players

Chris Wells, the first-year football coach at Middletown High School, was told to eliminate his religious discussions with his players, according to the district.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, sent a letter dated April 17 to the Middletown City School District saying Wells “crosses the line” because he “endorses and promotes his religion” when acting as a district employee.

Superintendent Sam Ison said the district took the letter “seriously and acted upon it promptly” Wednesday afternoon by having MHS Principal Carmela Cotter and Athletic Director Gary Lebo discuss the situation with Wells. Ison said while the district wants its players to maintain “high morale values,” Wells needs to respect others’ religious beliefs.

Wells, 41, was told to quit talking to his players about religion and he agreed to follow the district’s rules, Ison said on Thursday morning. Wells, who also teaches at Hamilton High School, was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon.

Cotter said the high school “embraces all kids” and it doesn’t “endorse any certain religion.”

She said Wells tries to “lift up kids.” He agreed, she said, to “temper that in a good way.”

In the letter from staff attorney Rebecca S. Markert, that was obtained by the Journal-News, she wrote the group with 20,000 members, including 550 in Ohio, was contacted by a concerned parent of a football player. She said the group was told Wells tells his players to bow their heads and “leads” them in prayer before team meals. She wrote that Wells also has encouraged his players to attend his church, invited them to church events and offered them rides.

Markert said the group was informed Wells told his players they would be “saved” if they attended the church events.

She wrote that it’s illegal for a public school athletic coach to lead his/her team in prayer, and the Supreme Court has continually struck down formal and teacher or school-led prayer in public schools. She wrote that Wells’ actions constitute an “unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”

Markert asked the district to start an investigation, take “immediate action” and inform the organization of the steps the district took to remedy this “serious and flagrant” violation of the First Amendment.

When Wells was introduced to the Middletown community on Feb. 11 in the school cafeteria, he told those in the audience he was “a different man” than the Chris Wells they knew when he was in school. He talked openly about his strong religious beliefs, ones he learned from Shelby Linville, a standout basketball player for the Middies back in the 1940s, then at the University of Kentucky.

At least once a week, Linville led a Bible study in his Lamberton Square apartment, and Wells never missed a lesson.

When asked about Linville, Wells said: “I owe that man so much. He changed me.”

At the “Meet the Coach” event, Wells told the crowd: “The toughest man that ever lived was Jesus Christ. Whoa. Did you just say that? Yes, I said that. You know why? You see that flag right there? I don’t preach to players. I don’t force anything down anybody’s throats. If I want to be open and I don’t want to hide the fact that I’m a Christian, I’m going to do that.”

Several of those in the audience applauded.

“I know that puts a target on my back,” Wells added. “I’d rather take a stand for something than not stand for anything. But you got to use common sense with such topics.”

Wells, a standout linebacker on the MHS football team and 1991 graduate, was hired as the 21st Middies coach, replacing Tony Everhart, who resigned after a 1-9 record. For the last three seasons, Wells coached at Madison High, where he led the Mohawks to a 13-17 record.

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